Matt McCarten: It's time to step up, Mr Mayor

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Len Brown has distanced himself from the wharfies. Photo / Janna Dixon
Len Brown has distanced himself from the wharfies. Photo / Janna Dixon

When Len Brown was asked for a response to Ports of Auckland's plan to casualise the jobs of waterfront workers, couldn't he have simply said that as Mayor he supported well-paid, fulltime jobs for workers in his city?

Instead he bent over backwards to distance himself from the wharfies and asked the workers this week to negotiate "more flexible work practices to reflect changing trends of the international shipping market".

Is our Mayor for real? What trends?

The Tauranga and Auckland ports have created their own problems by being played by multinational shipping giants and major producers such as Fonterra. They have had to fight each other and agree to lower fees. Maersk shipping actually left Tauranga to come to Auckland recently, but Tauranga wooed it back with a cheaper rate.

Fonterra has been in negotiations with Hawke's Bay for months. Interestingly, neither of these two companies has actually left Auckland yet.

Rather than address that failed strategy or introduce better systems, Ports of Auckland chief executive Tony Gibson introduces the lazy approach New Zealand managers are renowned for: slash wages and conditions.

It seems our "people's Mayor" is more concerned with not offending the political and business elites. And anyway, how exactly was the Mayor expecting the wharfies to negotiate when Gibson told them his plan to eliminate fulltime jobs was non-negotiable? The workers either agree to give up their jobs or he'll sack them.

Gibson's speechifying gets more hysterical each day. Does the following indicate any compromise? "The board is resolute. The management team is resolute. We need and have to have the right to manage the terminal, so we are actively and urgently pursuing the consultation around contracting out."

You'll note he doesn't mention the port owners, "the people of Auckland", or our council, let alone his employees.

But then this whole dispute is manufactured by Gibson and his political masters. Last week I accused the chief executive and the political cronies appointed by Rodney Hide to the port's board of having a secret agenda to privatise the port. To do that, they first needed to smash the wharfies' union and replace the workforce with compliant contractors.

This week the pretence was dropped. On Thursday a secret management "strategy report", written months ago, was leaked to the union. The company was prepared to spend $9 million of ratepayers' money to orchestrate a smashing of its workforce. The report's main recommendations have all happened. When caught out, the company fudged by saying it was only a discussion document and the author no longer worked for the port.

Oh, please!

On Thursday, the Ports and the union met in mediation. According to people in the room, the workers asked Gibson what would fix the problem. He made specific proposals on flexibility. The union agreed. The union thought it had an agreement. But Gibson came back and said he wanted more - although he didn't specify what.

He then released a press statement saying the talks were a waste of time and he was proceeding to sack the workers.

On Friday, in a radio interview, he openly promoted selling the port, even though 80 per cent of Aucklanders want their cash cow kept in public hands.

This is an employee we pay $750,000 a year - twice the salary we pay our Prime Minister - backed by an inexperienced board of directors who receive more for attending occasional monthly board meetings than a fulltime wharfie operating a $12 million crane who they complain is earning too much.

The Mayor's responsibility is to represent the will of his citizens and act in the interests of their city. To sit on the sideline and pretend the port dispute is merely about wages is naive, or disingenuous at worse. It is grand-scale theft by the very people we are paying to run it.

It's time to step up for the people, Len. Either demand Gibson's sacking or stand on the sideline watching hundreds of workers who voted for you lose their livelihoods. The next phase will be to sell the port.

- Herald on Sunday

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