NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Campbell's exit big blow for ports board

Rob Campbell. Photo / Supplied
Rob Campbell. Photo / Supplied

Which side are you on boys, which side are you on ... - Florence Reece

Whatever your politics, you have to admit the unions have all the best songs.

That 1930s anthem, later revived by Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg, hit the nail on the head with regard to the divisiveness of industrial disputes.

They force personal politics into the public and pit ideology against pragmatism.

Down at the waterfront, the pressure on workers - particularly those with young children and big mortgages - to hold the line and resist the lure of contracting dollars must be intense.

But it was fascinating yesterday to see the same pressures have worked their way to the top where an ideological split has seen Ports of Auckland director Rob Campbell quit dramatically. His statement, though short, was revealing.

"I have today resigned as a board member of Ports of Auckland. I have formed the view that my position as a board member is untenable given the strong difference of view that I have with Ports of Auckland's position and strategy."

In the oak-panelled world of corporate boards, where robust discussion remains private until market regulations require disclosure, these kind of statements are rare and loaded with meaning.

Campbell a former unionist who came close to the top job at the Council of Trade Unions in the early 1980s, is famous for defecting to the upper ranks of the corporate world.

He is a long-time chairman of Sir Ron Brierley's Guinness Peat Group and is now one of the country's most experienced and respected professional directors.

There is no doubt he was a strong advocate for restructuring the workforce at the port.

So why has he left? Presumably he would have liked to see the board tackle the restructuring issue more aggressively and with a broader scope. The argument would be that the company, including management, needed to be restructured and effectively reinvented.

It may be that a more radical restructuring wasn't palatable to port owners Auckland Council.

But that approach might have avoided the kind of stumbling blocks that an Employment Court judge has thrown in the way of the restructuring plans.

With plans to sack the staff and contract out jobs now on hold until a full Employment Court hearing in mid-May, and yesterday's cancelling of the lockout letting staff go back to work, it looks like management plans are unravelling.

Having come this far, a failure to implement a major restructuring of the workforce would be a disaster for management.

Having raised the stakes in this dispute, they can't afford to lose.

Campbell's departure is a real blow to the board and management because it looks rather like he can see the writing on the wall.

His departure note implies that, having advocated a different strategy, he doesn't feel obliged to stick around and wipe egg off his face with the rest of the directors.

That's not to say it is all over yet.

A full hearing in the Employment Court may yet go management's way.

But there is a real risk they will be forced back to the bargaining table and back to square one in the middle of the year.

Perhaps they are already contemplating a softer stance and that is what has upset Campbell.

The union will certainly see Campbell's departure as a victory and an indication that the board's stance may be softening.

Regardless of the final outcome, the process is looking increasingly shambolic and must be further spooking port customers.

The delay means more uncertainty, which was the last thing the company needed.

If the dispute ends in some kind of stalemate, then political intervention may be necessary.

Mayor Len Brown must be feeling as much pressure as anyone to pick a side - particularly given his left-of-centre political background.

Thus far, he has resisted.

He is in a difficult and unenviable position, backed politically by the left but fully aware of his obligation to let the council-owned port company run independently.

His patience must be wearing thin. Privately he may disagree with the board's strategy but, unlike Campbell, he doesn't have the luxury of quitting in disgust.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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