Nearly 300 sacked port workers have won back their jobs after Ports of Auckland's u-turn decision to drop moves to replace them with contractors and re-enter collective agreement talks with the Maritime Union.
The ports company, which had boasted a "bulletproof" legal case, made its surprise decision last night after an informal conference in the Employment Court.
A minute from Judge Barrie Travis said the company had agreed not to take any further steps to make union workers redundant and would halt its contracting out processes.
The port company and the union agreed to re-enter mediation for a new collective agreement.
The backdown follows a Herald investigation into a ports manager who was at the bargaining table with the Maritime Union and was also allegedly recruiting non-union wharfies for a private stevedoring company.
Ports of Auckland refused to comment on the allegations, saying the dispute was before the Employment Court and Judge Travis had instructed the parties not to speak publicly.
The union has called a meeting of port workers at noon today to vote on a recommendation to end their ninth strike since December, which they began four weeks ago tomorrow.
"If it is agreed, we will lift the strike immediately," union president Garry Parsloe told the Herald last night.
He said workers could safely return to work on the terms and conditions of their collective agreement and do what they had always wanted to do - concentrate on collective bargaining for a new agreement.
But he questioned whether the port board and management were capable of rebuilding the battered relationship and reaching a fair settlement with port workers who had been besmirched at every opportunity.
Port chairman Richard Pearson said Judge Travis had encouraged the company to return to mediation and it would do so in good faith.
The company had agreed to halt contracting out for four weeks, he said, but it was in no way resiling from its position on contracting out.
Mr Pearson said the company expected striking workers to apply for jobs with contractors.
He denied the port company was changing its fixed position because it found itself in a weak legal position in the Environment Court.
"The only thing that has changed is that the judge has encouraged the parties to have one more crack at mediation. That is it," Mr Pearson said.
When the company fired 292 port workers, including 235 union members, on March 7, Mr Pearson said he was looking forward to productivity improvements from greater flexibility resisted by the union, and said the port would be back to normal in 10 weeks.
Two days later, the company appointed private stevedoring companies Drake New Zealand and AWF Group to hire non-union workers.
Mr Pearson told the Herald 10 days ago that the company's legal position on making workers redundant and replacing them with non-union staff was "bulletproof".
"We have followed procedures prescribed by the law to the letter. There is no way that a court could find against Ports of Auckland," he said.
Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly called for the Auckland Council, which owns the port company, to hold an inquiry into "how the mess occurred".
"Today is a great relief for those workers, but the fact they have even had to go through this means the council must now ask serious questions about who is running this port and why the board embarked on a path that has cost the ratepayers millions and done considerable damage to the reputation of the port," Ms Kelly said.
Last night, Auckland Mayor Len Brown said he would consider the court decision alongside the position of both parties.
"My preference has been that both parties reach a sustainable collective agreement, because Aucklanders simply want their port fully operational, and I remain of that view."
Last night, port workers on the picket line outside Fergusson Wharf were cheered by news of the decision to re-enter collective bargaining.
Despite wet and windy weather, a small group were celebrating with chocolate cake.
Green Party industrial spokeswoman Denise Roche said companies made this kind of backdown only when their legal case was weak.
"I sincerely hope the contract can be settled quickly now the port has run out of legal arguments," she said.
* 40 days lost time so far.
* 9 strikes over 38 days.
* 1 lockout for 2 days.
* Sept 2011: Talks begin for a new collective employment agreement for 235 Maritime Union members; 2.5 per cent pay rise offered for each of three years.
* Nov 16: Union issues notice of two 24-hour strikes in bid to regain four jobs contracted out during previous agreement.
* Nov 18: Company responds with notice of two 24-hour lockouts.
* Dec 2: 24-hour strike.
* Dec 3-4: 48-hour lockout.
* Dec 5: 24-hour strike.
* Dec 8: Company offers 10 per cent wage rise in return for rostered shifts varying from five to 12 hours a day.
* Dec 10-11: 48-hour strike.
* Dec 23: 24-hour strike.
* Dec 25: 24-hour strike.
* Dec 30 to Jan 1: 48-hour strike.
* Jan 9 to 11: 48-hour strike.
* Feb 10: 24-hour strike.
* Feb 26: Start of current strike.
* Mar 7: 292 workers fired.
* Mar 21: Fired workers win back jobs.
- Additional reporting: Matthew Dearnaley, Isaac Davison