Russell Blackstock

Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Two men and a port in a storm

Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson.
Photo / Janna Dixon
Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson. Photo / Janna Dixon

The Ports of Auckland industrial dispute has been hell: Kids' Christmas presents stuck on the wharves; striking stevedores sacrificing thousands from their potential $91,000 pay packets; multi-national firms Maersk and Fonterra opting for Tauranga or Napier instead. Importers, exporters, truckies...all hurting.

And it's played havoc with the port boss' golf. He's back from his beach holiday at Papamoa, but he hasn't been on the course this week. "I only managed two rounds last year-for obvious reasons," he says.

This is chief executive Tony Gibson, "the $750,000 man", tanned and dapper in a smart suit, crisp white shirt and $7000 Bulgari watch. He has a property in Canterbury, a model family in Wellington and a rented Viaduct apartment. He keeps in shape with regular boxing training sessions. "One of my daughters recently got married and the other is having her wedding in February, so I'm a poor man," he jokes.

Then there's Garry Parsloe, the union boss. A single man, he left Dunedin to become a seafarer at 15.

He watches rugby. He shuns a business suit for a polo shirt with the union logo on the front. He wears a gold chain round his neck. He owns a flat on Fort St, around the corner from his office, so he can hop into work "seven days a week, if I like". He's not so much a boxer - more a streetfighter.

These are the men holding Auckland to ransom, grinding the engine room of the NZ economy to a halt. But-whaddaya know-both reckon it's the other bloke's fault.

It was September last year, as the dispute was just gathering steam, when Gibson and Parsloe met for a beer at The Right Track, a sports bar just up the road from the union boss' apartment. It was Gibson's idea: He phoned up Parsloe and invited him for a pint.

It's an old-school working man's pub. The sort of place you might expect to find Parsloe, less so Gibson. Wide-screen TVs carry the racing, and there are TAB betting slips littered around the tables.

As blokes placed their bets, the two men put their heads together- but there was never any prospect of them reaching agreement. "We actually had two or three beers that night," Parsloe says. "But I told him that it didn't mean I would capitulate." The bitter industrial dispute has thrust the two tough-talking Kiwis from opposing ends of the spectrum into the spotlight.

Parsloe, aged 67 and earning a salary of $66,000 as president of the Maritime Union, has raised eyebrows across New Zealand with his old-fashioned, picket-line intransigence, refusing to budge from eight hour shifts when you would be hard pressed to find another trade or profession in the country that enjoys that luxury. It's not about the money, he insists. It's about protecting family values. The union wants a 2.5 per cent rise on a basic annual wage of $57,000 and more job security.

After the union rejected a 10 per cent pay offer tied to a new rota system - rostered shifts of between five and 12 hours with provision to call stevedores in at short notice if a ship arrives in port early or late - Gibson threatened to replace 330 union workers with private contractors.

It's not the first time this has been suggested: A draft strategy for the port, written before the dispute but leaked this week, suggested bringing in contractors. Parsloe says the leaked paper proved the ports management has always been running a secret agenda; Gibson's spokeswoman says it was a draft that did not represent company policy, and the author had been made redundant. The two men are seasoned negotiators, each with more than 30 years' experience hammering out deals at ports around the world. But they can't see eye-to-eye in Auckland.

Following a string of 48-hour strikes, a fourth round of mediation talks failed this week.There is no sign of a solution. Instead, there is a new war of words. GIBSON looks every inch the corporate mover and shaker as he holds court in his office at the Ports of Auckland headquarters, sited in the heart of the docks. He has worked in various senior shipping company roles in Africa, Asia and Europe, before a three-year spell as managing director of Maersk, New Zealand - the same freight company that has just pulled its container shipping from Gibson's wharves.

Gibson has been in his present job for 11 months, and says that despite all his experience in the industry, the Auckland confrontation has been particularly challenging.

"I have had a few experiences in Europe of changes in organisations but this is probably the most direct dispute I've been involved in. It has also been an 11-month excercise in patience." He insists productivity must improve and increased profits be returned - and that means replacing a system that sees wharfies getting paid for more than hours than are required to finish loading or unloading ships.

"There wouldn't be an industry in New Zealand or the world that would accept those practices," he says. "The port's performance has been hampered for years because of industrial disputes and the handbrake on productivity that the current work practices provide. "This needs to be sorted - once and for all." He denies his no-nonsense approach is designed to break the wharfies' union. Or that he is there to slash costs in order to fatten up the port for an eventual sell-off. He even says he likes Parsloe, though the pair have been trading barbs for months. "I have the utmost respect for Garry," he says. "At the end of the day he is just like me, he's trying to make a difference but from a different perspective. "I'm sure we can always sit down for a beer as we have always done."

As he fronts the media, his communications manager Catherine Etheredge is never far from his side, even answering some of the questions put to her high-flying boss. Gibson seems dumbstruck when asked about his salary. Before he has a chance to clear his throat, Etheredge pipes up: "That is not a matter of public record and I think the point is that it is not Tony's salary that is being negotiated."

Gibson won't confirm reports he earns $750,000, saying it's not relevant: "Frankly, I don't do this for the money," he insists. "I do it because I'mvery passionate about the organisation and change, and I think we can really make a difference." Across town, at the Maritime Union offices above a second-hand furniture store off Auckland's CBD, Parsloe is delighted to hear his adversary doesn't turn up in the morning for cash. "That's great news," Parsloe grins. "They should stop paying him then. That would save the port quite a lot of money every year for a start."

Parsloe doesn't believe Gibson wants a negotiated settlement at all.He accuses Gibson of releasing misleading information about wharfies' wages "to make them look overpaid and lazy", sending scaremongering letters to employees at Christmas, then going on holiday over the festive season instead of trying to solve the dispute. "He is very heavy-handed, an absolute bully," Parsloe says.

"You don't go into mediation brandishing final offers and telling your workforce they are all going to be paid off - you go there to mediate." But despite appearances, this is not an old-fashioned industrial stand-off. It's more a PR battle. Both sides want to win over the public. Both sides want to be seen as the good guy.

Gibson's PR woman is friendly, anxious to help with information, offering cellphone numbers for affected importers, exporters and truckies. She emails answers to questions about where Gibson lives, and his age. Parsloe, too, wants to be seen as conciliatory and summons up a few grudging words of kindness for his adversary. "I actually have some sympathy for Tony because I think he is being driven by the board and he has been given an agenda. He also has more pressure on him than me because he has been given a ludicrous financial target to achieve," he says. OUT on the picket line this week, it is a bit different.

To the striking stevedores, it's the 1951 waterfront dispute all over again - but this time, they are confident they will win. "Gibson and his whole team are formidable and we respect who and what we are up against," says Carl Findlay, vice president of the national and Auckland Maritime Union. "But the membership is really pleased with the way Garry has handled this dispute. We are going to win this and will do whatever it takes to make it so." Danny Belsham, 60, has worked at the ports for 35 years.

"Gibson's whole ideology seems to be about getting more production but he has already been getting thatandwe have been paid productivity bonuses for the past five months," he says. "He has indicated that he has $6 to $8 million to make us all redundant, but if that is the case then he would be spending the people of Auckland's money like lolly water and he needs to be removed."

It's first thing in the morning on newspaper deadline day, and an urgent follow-up email pops up. "Hi Russell, Tony has asked that you please don't publish his actual age in the paper," Gibson's PR woman pleads. "He is happy for you to put mid-50s. I hope that is OK." Operators who use the Auckland Council-owned port have more urgent concerns: they are unhappy with the way things have dragged on. "It's getting to the stage now where importers are beginning to shift their freight to shipping companies that don't use Auckland," says Daniel Silva, whose Auckland import business DSL Logistics has been affected by the strikes. "The reliability of the supply chain through Auckland has been reduced and this is very bad news for importers and by extension everyone else, because goods then becomemore expensive."

Silva is also secretary of the New Zealand Importers Institute. His members now believe if the dispute can't be resolved through formal negotiation then it needs to be resolved by management changing the way the port operates. Their unspoken view is shared by more and more of the Auckland business community: It is time to smash the union. Not that anyone will say it openly- not after the strikes of 1890, and 1913, and of course the granddaddy of them all, the 1951 waterfront dispute. The ports employ fewer people now-but the potential for mayhem is huge.

Michael Barnett, chief executive of Auckland Chamber of Commerce, believes the dispute has to be settled before the city loses credibility as a major port worldwide. He insists productivity must be improved for the city to compete with other ports in Australasia. "Is it a contracting-out model the port needs like management suggests, or can Garry Parsloe and his union turn round and say they can deliver that for us in some other way?"

Barnett adds: "If we can't resolve this urgently, every day it extends we are putting Auckland's reputation at risk." The deadline is pressing, when Etheredge emails back with details of cellphone numbers for a couple of interviewees - and one last plea: "Tony really doesn't want his age in, would appreciate you passing that on," she says. For the record: Gibson is 57.

Bittersweet time for Tauranga

Despite the Bay of Plenty profiting from Auckland's woes,Tauranga's port boss isn't celebrating. He backs Auckland chief Tony Gibson's controversial move to replicate Tauranga's 24/7 work practices-and his hardline stance. Ports of Auckland has already lost an estimated $20 million a year from shipping giant Maersk shifting its Southern Star container service to the Bay of Plenty because of the ongoing industrial dispute.

Port of Napier is pitching to permanently secure Fonterra's shipping business.The dairy firm has said it willmove its export shipments-worth $27 million a week-from Auckland to Port of Tauranga and Port of Napier from the end of this month until further notice.

"It has been good having the extra business but it is bittersweet," says Ports of Tauranga chief executiveMark Cairns."I think Tony Gibson is a good rooster,which is a funny thing formeto say about a major competitor. "But I respect Tony for what he is trying to achieve in getting the labour practices into the 21st century."

Now talks have broken down again,he reckons Gibson has to take an even tougher stance with the wharfies."I think Tony has tried to achieve a similar working model to us with his existing workforce but it looks like he is at the end of his tether,"Cairns says."If he can't advance things with the existing workforce and unions, then he has to take a more radical step."


- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 31 Jul 2014 06:30:48 Processing Time: 871ms