New strikes threaten autumn of discontent

By Mathew Dearnaley

Photo / Dean Purcell
Photo / Dean Purcell

A triple-whammy of strikes pushed labour relations into the national spotlight, sparking a debate about whether it is coincidental or a sign of employers being emboldened by National's re-election.

Efforts to solve Auckland's crippling port dispute will continue today despite notice by unionists to extend a strike by about 300 dock workers to four weeks.

Up to 1700 workers are also due off the job at eight Affco meat-processing sites - in a combination of strike and lockout action - and about 700 staff of elderly care provider Oceania walked out of 19 rest homes and geriatric hospitals for two hours yesterday.

They are threatening to strike again for six hours on Wednesday for a 3.5 per cent pay rise, compared with three instalments of 1 per cent which the company wants to make conditional on cutting overtime rates.

But despite issuing another strike notice yesterday on behalf of Auckland port workers fearing the loss of their jobs to contractors, the Maritime Union described yesterday's mediated talks as positive.

Union president Garry Parsloe accused employers beforehand of attacking workers across the board, saying "it seems a crime to have a decent job".

Last night, however, he said the talks went well "and we hope they get better tomorrow".

Asked why the union had decided to fire off another strike notice, he said it was to reserve its position in case he was proven too optimistic after talks resume at 10am.

Yesterday was the last day when the union could legally serve notice if its members wanted to stay out for a fourth week, from March 16.

"It doesn't have to go ahead and if the talks go well we would withdraw it."

The port company did not comment on the new strike notice, apart from saying it was issued immediately after yesterday's talks.

It said the union had clarified several bargaining positions for consideration, which it would review carefully overnight.

A handful of non-union stevedores among its existing staff yesterday began unloading what the company said were more than 1000 containers from only the second ship to berth at its Fergusson terminal since the strike began last Friday.

Although the Importers' Institute says the discharge of cargo is an important development and to the great relief of businesses, the number of ships due to avoid Auckland rose yesterday - according to the port company's website - from 11 to 14.

Opposition parties claim the port dispute is becoming contagious, and egging on other employers assured of almost three more years of rule by an allegedly anti-union Government.

"As soon as employers get the sniff they can push workers to the wall, they are going to do it - Ports of Auckland have started it, Affco's doing it - it's going to spread," Mana Party leader Hone Harawira said on Radio New Zealand.

Labour industrial relations spokeswoman Darien Fenton told the Herald employers were dragging out settlements in expectation of legislation changes which Prime Minister John Key said before the election would be disliked by unions.

These included removing a duty for parties to reach industrial settlements.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said the three most prominent disputes had a common feature "which is workers trying to hang on to their terms and conditions".

"None is about making any progress, improving wages and trying to bridge the gap with Australia or catch up with inflation - it's all about attacks on conditions and security of employment."

But Mr Key said the Government was making only modest law changes, and to blame the disputes on those was far fetched.

Auckland University law professor Bill Hodge did not see a link, and attributed the Affco dispute to an individual employer "which marches to its own anti-union drum".

IN DISPUTE

Locked out indefinitely
762 workers at five Affco plants, at Moerewa, Horotiu, Wairoa, Feilding and Wanganui.

Striking
* Up to 900 more Affco workers for 24 hours from 5am today at the above sites and three others, including Wiri and Rangiuru (Te Puke), most of which will be picketed.

* About 300 Auckland port workers, from last Friday, until March 23.

* About 700 employees of rest-home chain Oceania, including about 200 in Auckland, for two hours yesterday and six hours next Wednesday.

- NZ Herald

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