Court to rule on port employees' right to work

By Mathew Dearnaley

Union officials say the port's determination to dismiss its workforce is 'over-ruling common sense.' Photo / Sarah Ivey
Union officials say the port's determination to dismiss its workforce is 'over-ruling common sense.' Photo / Sarah Ivey

Months of bitterness over Auckland's port dispute are due to come to a head today at an Employment Court injunction hearing.

The court will hear an application from the Maritime Union for various injunctions, including an order for an immediate return to work of 235 of its members who ended a four-week strike on Thursday but have not been allowed back by the port company.

Both parties returned to talks before a Labour Department mediator yesterday afternoon, in accordance with an undertaking by the company to the court at an informal "settlement conference" last week.

The company also promised then to take no further steps to make the union's members redundant in the next four weeks.

In accepting those and other undertakings, the court adjourned an injunction application by the union which it was to have considered last Thursday, as well as a full hearing this week of a claim that a company proposal to sack 292 workers and contract out their jobs is unlawful.

Yesterday's mediation session ended with the company again refusing to allow the unionists to return to work, saying that could not happen "until all health and safety requirements are met".

It said in a brief statement that its board would need to approve any plan for a return to work "as the responsibility for the health and safety of workers ultimately rests with them".

The statement did not specify its safety concerns, saying those would be discussed in court today.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly told the Herald on Friday that it was unclear from a meeting with the company "whether they were saying their guys inside might attack our guys".

She was referring to 57 non-union staff which the company says have filled its roster until at least the end of this week for unloading a reduced number of ships at its container wharves, leaving no work for the unionists. Maritime Union president Garry Parsloe said after yesterday's talks that his members were entitled to an immediate return to work "with all collective employment agreement obligations being met".

He accused the port company, which is 100 per cent owned by the Auckland Council and its ratepayers, of raising "ghost" health and safety concerns as a basis for unlawfully breaching employment agreements.

"The company appears to have no plan for getting the ports up and running again, nor concern for those clients being impacted by the disruption," he said.

"The union has tried multiple ways to resolve this dispute but the single focus of the port to dismiss its workforce is over-ruling all common sense."

Although the company has issued 14 days' notice of a lockout, as required before any lawful industrial action can take place in an essential industry, that is not due to start until April 6.

Mr Parsloe disclosed a proposal which the union made to the company at yesterday's talks and which included a meeting this morning of all wharf workers - union and non-union alike - to be addressed by himself and port chief executive Tony Gibson.

That would have been to set out how all workers were expected to behave, backed by a joint statement that although some members of both sides may perceive health and safety risks, parties were "co-operating to manage these perceptions".

The proposal also included a union demand for lost wages from the company's refusal to let its members return to work after strike notices were lifted on Thursday.

Retailers are, meanwhile, still managing to stock most of their shelves with the help of goods brought by rail from other ports, although at great extra cost.

The Warehouse refused yesterday to confirm a claim that goods were looking sparse at its 700,000sq m North Island distribution centre in South Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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