Unrest has unions looking to the future

By Dene Mackenzie

Ports of Auckland workers face a big change in the way the waterfront is handled. Photo / Dean Purcell
Ports of Auckland workers face a big change in the way the waterfront is handled. Photo / Dean Purcell

Ports of Auckland management must have realised the reaction they would receive when on Wednesday they decided to make nearly 300 Maritime Union members redundant and introduce competitive stevedoring into its container terminal operations.

The stoush is part of a wave of industrial unrest being labelled by unionists as the worst since National introduced the Employment Contracts Act in 1990.

Court appeals and defences are already being prepared on the port dispute which seems set to drag on for weeks.

Right wing bloggers have attacked online the Maritime Union president Gary Parsloe, and his fellow union leaders, as being dinosaurs. Auckland mayor Len Brown, who was backed by unions in his mayoral campaign, is seen as selling out to port management at the expense of union jobs.

Until now, Labour leader David Shearer has kept well away from the dispute but two of his Auckland MPs Jacinda Ardern and Darien Fenton (both list MPs) have been seen on the picket lines.

Parsloe reacted to the news of the layoffs in a predictable way, saying workers were devastated.

"There is no basis for this proposal. We're already providing flexibility and have offered even more in negotiations with Ports of Auckland."

He called on Brown to not let this happen on his watch, saying that Brown's legacy could not be that he stood by while port workers were treated in such a bad way.

Port chief executive Tony Gibson was brought in to sort out the unions on the Auckland wharves and it seems he has won. Whether that will open doors for other port employers to disable the once strong union will be now open to speculation.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the former Harbour Workers Union was driven out of business, mainly from activities undertaken from Dunedin as port reform first took shape.

Wider disputes have been running at Affco-branded freezing works where, also on Wednesday, a further 200 workers were locked out of the Te Puke works.

The lockout came after more than 1000 workers began picketing outside another five of Affco's eight plants last week.

Affco operations manager Rowan Ogg said the lockout would continue indefinitely and a return to the negotiating table with the Meat Workers Union was unlikely unless the union had a "significant change in philosophy".

Strikes have also been held nationwide involving up to 1500 members of the Nurses Organisation and the Service and Food Workers, affecting around 20 rest homes.

Staff were being told the Oceania group was offering a 3 per cent pay rise over 15 months but union organisers said the reality was staff being offered about 1.5 per cent over two years.

Union organisers said Oceania had chosen to use public money to pay off its property costs rather than invest in care for the elderly.

First Union general secretary Robert Reid is a long-time participant in the industrial scene, having joined his first union in 1973. First Union is not involved in the present disputes.

He believed employers were being emboldened by not-so-subtle hints from the "John Key Mark II Government" by reacting to what they thought they could get away with.

"In the first term of the Key Government, they passed a few labour laws we didn't like but it was clear going into the election that employers didn't think the Government was going far enough.

"During the election, National made it clear it was not going to be 'Labour light'. That has given the employers courage, in my view, to unleash a class struggle on their workers."

Reid admitted that "struggle" was a strong word to use in the present industrial climate but said other union officials agreed with him.

"Most employers would probably wish unions didn't exist even though unions are the basis of legal rights of congregation today."

BusinessNZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly dismissed Reid's claims.

"Of course it's not about employers with an agenda to take on unions. About 99.999 per cent of all workers and employers work together extremely well. I don't perceive any big anti-union agenda here."

While the Council of Trade Unions had talked about employers being emboldened by the Government's stance on industrial relations, O'Reilly, an employers advocate in various forms since the 1980s, said it was impossible to point to one bit of legislation that gave authority to that claim.

The latest industrial action was more noticeable because the prominent strikes and lockouts were the first in many months.

Smaller, low-key industrial action happened regularly, he said.

In his opinion, there was no particular thread to the three big disputes. However, there was a general theme of tough economic times and employers trying to find a way to save jobs as well as make a profit.

When times were tough, employers had to become more competitive and they had less choice about how they could do that, O'Reilly said. Workers could feel the brunt of those hard times by finding overtime being cut, their partner had lost their job and their families were finding it harder to make ends meet.

"But if you asked me whether that suggested a major uplift in industrial relations, the answer is no."

O'Reilly claimed the Government had said it would not interfere with collective bargaining.

Council of Trade Unions secretary Peter Conway tends to agree with O'Reilly that most employers and their workers get on with things without too many disputes.

To put it into context, Conway said 390,000 people were in unions and covered by 2500 collective agreements.

"There has been a lot of publicity about three of them but that is only three out of 2500. A lot of union members are going to work today who are not at war with their employers."

What concerned the CTU, however, was other employers looking at the disputes and thinking about changing to a casual workforce.

More employer action would follow this year, affecting other workers, he said.

In tough times, it was essential for employers and workers to co-operate and not pass on the risks to the most vulnerable.

The global financial crisis was caused by the business and banking community but everybody - businesses and workers alike - were paying the price, Conway said.

Reid said once anti-union companies such as Talleys, the owners of the Affco plants, managed to change the wages and conditions at their meat plants, other meat processors would be forced to follow suit.

Other lock-outs would follow, with the most obvious example being the airline industry.

Budget airlines had forced the main players to drop wages and lower the conditions in an effort to remain competitive. Qantas had locked out its staff and grounded its planes, he said.

Ports of Auckland was using the present dispute to lower its costs at the expense of workers' wages and conditions. "The port company definitely feels much, much stronger by the silence of the Government."

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson is going to let the disputes play out.

Key said the Government had not been asked to intervene and it would be an "enormous call" for it to do so.

"We're not actually a party to those issues at the moment. The only thing I would say is it's very important that all parties act lawfully and legally and clearly try and resolve the issue as soon as they can."

Wave of dissent

Strikes have affected:
* Ports of Auckland
* Affco freezing works
* Nurses Organisation
* Service and Food Workers

- Otago Daily Times

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