Auckland port workers were said yesterday to have "nothing to lose" by striking for three weeks from this morning, after their union issued an extended walkout notice.
Importers had already warned of shortages of medical supplies and raw materials for manufacturing as well as retail goods while faced with a two-week strike expected to disrupt 25 container ships.
That was before the Maritime Union, with more than 300 members walking out from 7am today, issued the Auckland Council-owned port company with notice of a third consecutive week-long strike.
Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly told the city's governing body chaired by Mayor Len Brown that it should not underestimate the dispute's seriousness, as 40 per cent of the country's freight crosses Auckland's wharves.
That had implications for "tens of thousands" of workers relying on supplies getting through.
But the workers had no alternative given company preparations to contract out their jobs, after its refusal to accept union concessions for greater flexibility over working hours.
Blaming the council for giving the company an excuse to do that by demanding twice the current 6 per cent annual return on investment, she said the workers had "nothing to lose - within six weeks they will all be dismissed ..."
"These workers are in a desperate situation that will drive down productivity in this port, so the only choice is to fight, and to fight as hard as they can and bring the people of Auckland with them."
Leading hand stevedore Danny Belsham, after 33 years at the port, said he did not believe anyone working there wanted to be on strike as that was "always a last resort when there's nothing left in the tank".
Despite the threat to the workers' jobs, they had maintained productivity, as shown by $100 bonuses paid to each of them last week.
Company chief Tony Gibson later denied that the port had reached the point of deciding to contract out stevedoring work, telling the Herald there would be a further six-week consultation period after that.
"We're still working through the business case and we've still got to provide a meaningful dialogue with the union about what that contracting-out proposal would look like," he said.
But he confirmed the company had expressions of interest from would-be contractors, and said many people had indicated a desire to work at the port under a new regime, despite union efforts to discourage members from applying for jobs.
Ms Kelly gave the council a letter Mr Gibson sent the union on Friday, in which he noted its refusal to participate in contracting out discussions and asked it to respond urgently to a meeting invitation.
He wrote that if the company gained enough confidence in the practicability and effectiveness of contracting out, it would proceed from this week with more detailed discussions with contractors "with the potential of concluding arrangements with them".
He acknowledged yesterday there would be a likely initial productivity drop during any transfer to contractors, but believed that would improve soon towards meeting the council's "not unreasonable" financial expectation.
Contracting out was still being considered as a contingency, and the company remained focused on a "parallel process" of reaching a new collective employment agreement with workers.
The Importers Institute has called for the Government to pass urgent legislation empowering the Port of Auckland to dismiss striking port workers and contract out the work to private operators.
The institute accuses the union of demanding a "monopoly on wharf usurping the right of management to manage the port".
Importers Institute's secretary Daniel Silver told Radio New Zealand the Maritime Union should be liable for the costs of the strike.
"We've been urging Ports of Auckland to accelerate the move to contractors, they tell us that they can't do that because of the current industrial law.
"We've asked the Government to intervene and pass emergency legislation to enable to go ahead and break the strike."
*Strike by 300-plus container terminal workers, starting at 7am today, to be extended to three weeks.
*More than 30 ships carrying millions of dollars of goods likely to be disrupted, although the company will try to unload and load some with non-union labour.
*Council of Trade Unions acknowledges "implications" for tens of thousands of other workers whose employers rely on imported raw material.