Helen Kelly: Workers accept flexibility in port dispute

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The union says Ports of Auckland needs to return to the bargaining table otherwise months of disruption could follow. Photo / Dean Purcell
The union says Ports of Auckland needs to return to the bargaining table otherwise months of disruption could follow. Photo / Dean Purcell

Both sides of the industrial dispute at Ports of Auckland see it as a matter of vital importance for the future. To the union, jobs are at stake. To the employer it's whether the port remains viable. Today each side states its case.

It is hard to imagine that the Port of Auckland would really consider dismissing its entire workforce and contracting in new labour at a lower price - but that is what it is setting about doing and last Friday it presented its plans to do this to the Maritime Union.

The port and union have been in negotiations for a new collective agreement and when the port has not been able to get entirely the new agreement it wants (one which removes any guarantee of hours or work), it has decided to replace these workers with contract workers who will, because of their precarious employment status, accept this type of arrangement.

The port workers already have incredible flexibility in their collective agreement. They can be rostered to work any shift, night and day, seven days a week. While 53 per cent of them are at least guaranteed five shifts a week, 27 per cent are only guaranteed three shifts per week and 20 per cent are casual with no guarantees. But this is not enough for the port. They want everyone to work like the casuals.

And for Aucklanders this contracting is also a privatisation of the services of their port. The port is owned by the [Auckland] council and makes money for ratepayers by providing services to ships. To be honest, the Government was probably hoping John Banks would win the Auckland mayoralty and the port would be privatised but the next best thing would be to privatise the services at the port (the profitable bit!).

The port management has painted a picture of the port as being unproductive and that the workers are to blame for this. Strange then that in September last year, the port had a party for the workers to recognise their high productivity, and equally strange that report after report into our ports rate them (including Auckland) as performing well. I guess to justify what the port is undertaking, it has to create a crisis - and try to paint the workers as lazy.

The 2011 Annual Review of the port notes that they had "a pleasing year" with a "new record high" of container volumes. In a port magazine for customers (Interconnect, September 2011) they said "POAL's staff hours per container have decreased 16 per cent since 2007". Yet now we are told the port is in a crisis.

The port released false information about the workers' wage levels (they are paid $27 per hour regardless of night/day/weekends). It has corrected this now but the headlines they created linger in people's minds. The port has been equally reluctant to admit that the union has proposed changes to working arrangements that will improve productivity further, and that these have been rejected.

In mediation, the union agreed to major changes in working conditions. These include more flexibility in rosters, changes to overtime rosters, and greater use of part-timers. Port management said these offers addressed major concerns and were "big" in terms of costs savings. But then they said they didn't want to settle the agreement. Why not? This is highly irresponsible.

It is reported that Tony Gibson, the port chief executive, earns $750,000 a year. That seems a lot if it is true. I am sure he works hard. But he is in the media constantly criticising his own workforce who earn a tiny fraction of what he does.

If the port's board is pursuing an agenda to contract out jobs and sack all the workers, then it is the board which should be sacked.

In the end this dispute is about two things - whether the workers for the Port of Auckland will be dismissed to be replaced by a casualised workforce (along the same lines as Tauranga where there have been three deaths in 15 months) and whether Auckland ratepayers are losing the value of their port by stealth to those who simply want to make more and more profit out of our assets through privatisation.

The workers at the port have taken strike action and may take more in order for a collective agreement to be agreed and to save their jobs. At a time when the Auckland economy is so slow, given a deal is on the table, the management of the port should be told to get off its high horse and settle this dispute. Many business owners and their workers will be very anxious that the port is not interrupted.

But what choice do the workers have if there is no chance of agreeing a collective agreement - their only other option to avoid disruption is to completely accede to the port's demands to sacrifice their family life and put themselves on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That can't be what we ask them to do.

The board and chief executive of the port are now on a very damaging course of action. They need to take stock of the situation and return to bargaining with a reasonable position. Otherwise there will be months of disruption if not longer. There will be a huge loss of goodwill, years of bitterness about the port, loss of confidence among exporters and shippers - and who knows what else. One thing is for sure, it will be extremely damaging to all concerned.

We are asking for the people of Auckland to support these workers and save the port. More information on this issue can be found at http://www.portsofauckland.com

Helen Kelly is president of the Council of Trade Unions.

- NZ Herald

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