Thousands of Auckland importers and tens of thousands of their employees stand to suffer over the next few weeks as the Maritime Union of New Zealand makes a last-ditch stand against the Auckland port company's plans to contract out their jobs.
The company's determination to put its container terminal on a more competitive footing is obvious to the union. So obvious that the union says its members have "nothing to lose" by striking in the meantime.
They have nothing to lose but their last three weeks' wages. People facing redundancy do not normally forfeit the income remaining for them. The union must still imagine it has a slim chance of breaking the company's resolve.
It might hope that a three-week strike could cause so much disruption to the economy that business would demand the port company abandon its plans.
More than 30 ships are scheduled to call at the container terminal during this week and the port company is said to be prepared to meet them with non-union labour if it can. It faces the risk that the union will appeal to counterparts in foreign ports not to handle cargo loaded by strike-breakers at Auckland. This long dispute could get a lot more nasty yet.
But it must be hoped the union comes to its senses. This is not the 1970s. New Zealand ports are no longer hostage to wharfies and national industry negotiations. Ports are now highly competitive, managed as a business and answerable to local bodies. Some also have private shareholders, ensuring their performance can be measured against other investments on the stockmarket.
Ports of Auckland Ltd is no longer listed on the market but it might as well be, for its owner, the Auckland Council, is clearly measuring its returns against the same expectations. If the union had any hopes the left-leaning council would come down on its side, its hopes were dashed this week.
Mayor Len Brown heard a plea from the Council of Trade Unions and repeated what he has been saying for months: the council expects much better than a 6 per cent return on investment in the port.
The CTU president, Helen Kelly, discovered the council's demand for twice that return lies at the heart of the dispute. A succession of council-appointed boards and chief executives have been hired to lift the port's financial results in recent years, and let go when they failed. The latest board and its chief executive, Tony Gibson, are the ones who have nothing to lose.
Auckland has much to lose too, over the next few weeks. But if importers and businesses that depends on regular shipments can survive the next few weeks, the worst will be over. The company should be able to contract out stevedoring work and get much greater productivity for its outlays.
The port has already lost business to its nearest rival, Tauranga, in the course of this dispute. It has helped Tauranga post a record half-year result on Thursday. But Port of Tauranga was under no illusion that its gains will be easy to keep if Auckland can reform its labour arrangements.
The next few weeks are going to be fateful for the port, the city and the country. The dispute could determine whether Auckland remains the nation's main gate for incoming freight.