Pickets deny 'thuggery' after two ships delayed

By Mathew Dearnaley, Isaac Davison, Hayden Donnell

Accusations of aggression came from both sides of the dispute as more than 100 port workers and their supporters swelled the picket lines yesterday. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Accusations of aggression came from both sides of the dispute as more than 100 port workers and their supporters swelled the picket lines yesterday. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Union leaders expect to meet overseas representatives of the giant Maersk shipping line today after striking Auckland dockers delayed vessels yesterday with ramped-up pickets.

Maritime Union president Garry Parsloe said last night that he and Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly were to talk to Maersk officials amid growing international concern about the Auckland dispute involving 235 striking union members.

But the company's New Zealand office denied a suggestion by Ms Kelly that it had decided to stop calling at Auckland until the dispute was over.

Yesterday's pickets preceded a meeting chaired by Auckland Mayor Len Brown at which Mr Parsloe said the council-owned port company made a "reprehensible" offer to retain 60 out of 292 workers it intends to lay off and replace with stevedoring contractors.

Police were called after Ports of Auckland said the pickets were blocking staff and trucks from entering five wharves, before the arrival of the cruise ship Ocean Princess and container vessel CSAV Ranquil.

Merchant Service Guild secretary Helen McAra confirmed her tugboat and pilot members agreed to observe the pickets but were allowed through to bring the Ocean Princess to shore after being told the container ship was still at anchor outside the harbour.

Although the cruise ship was delayed for only about an hour, the container vessel was kept offshore until yesterday afternoon, when Mr Parsloe said the pickets were lifted.

A company spokeswoman said the delay meant the ship could not fully unload and would have to leave today with up to 215 containers still on board.

The company says it is also investigating complaints that those on picket duty forced cars to stop, asking why occupants were entering the port and verbally abusing some of them.

Licence plates were photographed and the car of a female staff member was hit, the company said.

More than 100 port workers and their supporters swelled the picket lines, which were passive for the first fortnight of what threatens to become an indefinite strike.

Ports chairman Richard Pearson blamed a core group of "thugs and enforcers" for what he told Television One was "a very important and sinister approach they are now taking".

One woman, who did not want to be named but described herself as a port administration worker, told the Herald she felt intimidated when she was forced to make a u-turn. "I was shaking and crying," she said.

Mr Parsloe did not know of such incidents and asked why no arrests were made "if there was thuggery".

"The only intimidation was [by] a non-unionist who drove his car into one of our picketers," he said.

He said the meeting facilitated by the mayor was marred by a suggestion from the port company that 60 jobs were "all they've got room for" after the appointment of new contractors.

A second company spokeswoman said she had no knowledge of such a suggestion, adding that the parties had agreed to keep what was discussed at the meeting confidential.

Maersk NZ managing director Julian Bevis denied Ms Kelly's suggestion that Maersk container ships - including one due today - would bypass Auckland during the dispute.

But he said the line always made contingency plans for "alternative coverage" against potential disruption.

Mr Parsloe said he had correspondence from an overseas office of Maersk saying it would not carry any more containers across the Tasman "if they are going through ... Auckland".

He said that was in return for Australian unionists agreeing to lift strike action against three vessels worked in Auckland by non-union labour.

- Mathew Dearnaley

'BUST PLACARDS ON THEIR CARS' URGES JACKSON

RadioLive host Willie Jackson has called for striking wharfies to take "militant action" in their battle with Ports of Auckland bosses.

Mr Jackson, a former trade union organiser and Alliance Party MP, supported the striking port workers' calls for eight-hour shifts and job security on his RadioLive afternoon slot yesterday.

He called Ports of Auckland bosses "greedy, filthy, right-wing fundamentalists" who were led by a "gutless wonder" mayor.

Intimidation was needed to stop non-union workers being called in to do the striking workers' jobs, he said.

"If you really want something you've got to act ... You don't go stop and then the scabs come in and they take your jobs. Go and bust your picket or your placard on their cars. I support that action."

Striking wharfies should also hit out against the "slick" Ports of Auckland board chairman Richard Pearson, Mr Jackson said. "I'm into militant action. Go and occupy. If I was them I'd go and sit on that Pearson's car, right. I'd sit on his car, occupy his car. Occupy his office. Occupy everywhere. Do what you have to do."

Later, MediaWorks' publicity manager sent out a clarification, saying Mr Jackson "wishes to make it clear that he does not advocate violence of any kind".

"I want to make it clear that when I say 'militant action', I'm talking about taking a stance on an issue in a strong but non-violent manner, in the way that Lucy Lawless took a stance recently with Greenpeace."

Earlier, Auckland Chamber of Commerce head Michael Barnett called on union bosses to prevent violent or intimidating behaviour.

He said such tactics were the "worst possible way" to win the support of New Zealanders.

Ports of Auckland sacked 292 workers, mainly stevedores, last week in an escalation of the four-month dispute.

- Hayden Donnell

DISRUPTION BEGINS TO HIT RETAILERS' SUPPLY LINES

Small cracks have begun to show in importers' supply lines due to the prolonged disruption at the Ports of Auckland, with one major retailer announcing related shortages.

The Warehouse placed advertising in newspapers, apologising for running out of Lego Friends toys which were advertised in its catalogue.

"Due to the Auckland Port strike the earliest we are expecting more stock to arrive is Tuesday 20th March," The Warehouse said. The retail giant would not comment further on the pressures it faced from strike action.

The toy shortage was in part due to "exceptional" sales, and in most cases importers were meeting demand.

However, the Importers Institute said more shortages would be inevitable if the disruptions to the Ports of Auckland continued. The move to contract workers will not be complete for six weeks.

Importers Institute secretary Daniel Silva said a few clothing retailers were getting caught out because they were advertising their winter stock when in some cases it had not yet arrived.

The New Zealand Retailers Association said most of its members were unaffected by the strike, but distribution centres that stocked the shops were beginning to run low.

Some importers have been forced to retrieve their stock from the South Island.

A ship carrying manufactured goods from China last week bypassed not only Auckland's port but also Wellington, and instead unloaded containers at Lyttelton.

Mr Silva said he believed the ship, Rudolph Schepers, was keen to meet a tight schedule and did not want to risk stoppages.

Two other ships from China have been sent to Wellington to have their cargo shipped to Tauranga and then sent by rail to Auckland. This re-routing delayed the arrival of stock by one or two days, but the main inconvenience to importers was the extra transport cost.

- Isaac Davison

- NZ Herald

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