PPS Voyage 79 - A Christmas tale

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It's 2.15am and still muggy. I've been at work 10 hours, with two more left to go. I'm supervising timber loading on a pulp and timber vessel destined for Japan. I'm tired, sitting communicating with my forklift drivers via a radio, reflecting on my career at Napier Port thus far. The quiet hypnotic voice of the hatchman talking to his gantry operator working Hatch-1 is soothing, like a lullaby - "Come back, Bro ... back, back ... stop ... there, Bro ... sweet-as my Bro."

It is poetry and motion. The gentle banter of men working totally in tune.

There are 19 of us here tonight. Only four are permanent.

I began work at the Harbour Board just before Christmas 1966, as a cashier. I looked after the board's leasehold sections, wharfages and ships charges.

The port's general manager - a true gentleman - oversaw accounting, industrial relations (the Watersider's and Harbour Worker's Unions) and any media issues if required. He drove himself to Harbour's Association meetings in Wellington in his own little red Cortina. During one such trip, it overheated, blew up and the board purchased his first full-blown company car - a no-frills Holden.

He left gifts of hankies on our desks each Christmas. Made aware that an old woman's leasehold section and house was rundown, he organised the Lion's Club to clean up and repaint it. His wages were relative to the board's staff at the time - office, construction and cargo workers, pilot staff and trades people alike. Characters that, as a teen, it was a treasure knowing on my journey towards manhood.

In the'70s I transferred to the cargo department, as a clerk/forklift operator. The general manager kept track of my progress, my work, my marriage and when my children were both born. Old hands helped and encouraged me through camaraderie and good humour and showed me the ropes. We worked hard day and night and on weekends. With penal rates and bonuses we were well paid for that work. I missed most of children's' sporting fixtures. Five or six hundred-odd wharfies and 200-odd port staff all spent their wages in the community.

And yes, a lot of them were (odd). But oh what a lovely bunch they were.

In the'80s I was promoted to second in charge of the cargo department. The old general manager was replaced with a new managing director. New roles in marketing, industrial relations and IT soon followed. I saw the port move from bulk cargo to containers, from roll-on, roll-off vessels to the port's swish new container cranes. From Harbour Board to Port Company under Regional Council control and the introduction of what was the most expensive union breaker of them all - Omniport (under the directorship of ex- National Deputy PM Jim McLay) - a $45-million all-weather loading system proven to be unworkable in Texas well before its completion here (something I saw first-hand).

My greatest supporters were still the wharfies and drivers who had shown me the ropes. We bent the rules, moved mountains and achieved miracles. My leadership style - working alongside my staff - was out of step with management. The port flourished.

In the'90s I switched companies. Port reforms left the Watersider's Union decimated. Seagulling, or casualisation as it is known now, became the norm. Myself and 50 or so wharfies joined the casual ranks when the stevedoring company we'd switched to went under. I was soon rehired by the port to supervise special contacts. Omniport was scrapped three years before its contractual 10-year tenure. A new CEO introduced a whole new echelon of senior managers. Consultants, financial controllers, marketeers and IT experts began running cargo operations. The operations manager - the last of the true gentlemen - quit. Old hands like myself were branded part of an old culture carrying too much baggage from the past.

For the next 15 years, under eight inexperienced externally-appointed managers, no one showed me new or better ways to do my job.

The port suffered four work-related deaths and two accidents involving major injuries.

In 2010 I was made redundant then re-employed by the company contracted to stevedore the work I'm doing now. My new CEO sent me a card and Lotto ticket in a gesture reminiscent of my original general manager.

The port's CEO shouted himself and his cohorts a wage increase and four new company cars.

On the Pan Pac Spirit Voyage 79, millions of dollars worth of cargo is almost loaded, and not one senior port manager was involved.

It's 4am. "Sweet as, Bro," the permanent hatchman praises his casual gantry operator. "That's it, Bro. The other hatch'll load the bins. Home my Bro."

Old George - the longest serving casual, an old Coast Maori - limps to his modest car. Wharf-men wearing company hardhats over darkened hoodies slip into a low slung, black-bonneted white Honda and go cruising, their boom-box defying the early morning air.

They will fund their own Christmas breakfast together at McDonald's. They've done their jobs - scratched out a living for another week - it's all they can do to just get by. The will for them to stay and learn new ropes has long gone. There is no point.

At the end of the month, doing nothing but provide the ship a berth, the port's CEO (a $569,000-plus man) and his echelon (49 in all, on salaries ranging from $300,000 to $100,000) will lay claim to the success of our work and value of the cargo loaded with their shareholders (the Regional Council) - "As sweet as, Bro."

Merry Christmas

On advice, the author has withheld his name to protect his interests.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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