Auckland wharf workers are threatening to double the length of their next strike - starting a week today - to an almost unprecedented 14 days.
The Maritime Union yesterday served the Ports of Auckland with notice of an intention to extend the strike of more than 300 workers by a second week unless progress can be made towards settling its bitter employment dispute with the council-owned company.
Company chief Tony Gibson said last night that he feared the strike was inevitable, as it would be very difficult to work towards a resolution under threat of such disruptive action.
Although the company has already been hit by six strikes during the dispute, in which it also locked out the workers for 48 hours before Christmas, the longest has been for two days.
Daniel Silva of the Importers Institute said the damage to the country's supply chain from a fortnight-long stoppage was "unimaginable" and would produce severe shortages of goods, including medical supplies and raw materials for manufacture.
He could not recall such a long shutdown since the 1951 waterfront dispute, during which waterfront workers were locked out by port employers throughout New Zealand for more than 27 weeks and the armed forces were brought in to run the waterfront.
Although importers and exporters were able to work around the earlier strikes, he said the latest notice represented a major escalation.
Silva called on the company to "sack the union and tough it out" by accelerating contingency plans to contract out its members' work, and argue about legal "niceties" later.
Union president Garry Parsloe said such a long strike was not inevitable, but his team was reserving its right to extend the stoppage under a requirement to give 14 days' notice of industrial action in essential industries.
He said port users and other interested parties including the council should persuade Gibson to negotiate "in good faith" towards a new collective employment agreement, rather than undermine talks by continually threatening his members' jobs.
A group of unlikely partners, including business leaders and unionists, has called for a new vision for the port which it says should be broader than the Auckland Council's push for higher ownership dividends.
Merchant banker Michael Lorimer last night said a new charter should balance the need for the port to make a return to the council with its other roles as provider of services to business, employer of Aucklanders, and guardian of a beautiful space.
His group also includes CTU president Helen Kelly, Mainfreight managing director Don Braid and Heart of the City business association chief Alex Swney.
* Waterfront workers are threatening to double the length of their next strike to 14 days.
* More than 300 workers will take part in the action unless progress can be made towards settling the dispute.
* The Ports of Auckland has been hit by six strikes during the dispute.
* Before Christmas the port locked out workers for 48 hours.