Rodney Hide: Union nonsense holding Auckland city to ransom

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Port workers have been on strike 12 times this year. Photo / Doug Sherring
Port workers have been on strike 12 times this year. Photo / Doug Sherring

I have to admit that we used to hope the old drunk would fall climbing up the ladder.

Somehow, against all odds, he'd make it up. Once in his crane cab, he was safe. It was us down below who then had to suffer as he smashed trucks and put our lives at risk.

The crane driver spent half his shift at the pub. That's how it was at Lyttelton Port in the 1970s.

He finally got the "Don't Come Monday" when he just missed a wharfie with a pallet of oranges. The wharfies determined he had to go. It hadn't mattered that for years he had been endangering truck drivers.

The railway depot was just as bad. The workers there would be thieving off my truck before I had even come to a stop.

I later worked as a fitter's mate in British construction. My workmates would lie, cheat, steal and engage in industrial sabotage. The crew I was part of stole an entire Landrover.

That was no mean feat: we were on an island in the North Sea.

We were building a gas stripping plant at Sullom Voe in the Shetland Islands. I regularly saw metal scraps tossed into one-metre gas pipes as they were welded up. That was to ensure maintenance work once construction was finished.

Both Lyttelton Port and Sullom Voe were union-controlled. The control was maintained through bullying and violence. I was threatened that a spanner could fall on my head; an English welder had both legs and both arms broken for not following union dictates.

The way I saw it, the bosses got us to do what they wanted by paying us. That suited me. But union bosses got us to do what they wanted through thuggery and violence. I didn't like it. And I didn't like them.

I am not surprised that Council of Trade Unions boss Helen Kelly says, given a choice, she would be back in the 1970s. Union bosses then ruled the roost. They did well out of it. Everyone else had to suffer.

We see the union nonsense at Auckland Port. Their wage and conditions negotiations have dragged on for a year. One year! In the normal world you make a job offer and it's a yes or a no. There might be a bit of argy-bargy but not a year's worth. These guys are crane and straddle drivers, not superstars.

The port wants wharfies to turn up when the boats turn up - that is, when there's work to do. That's how it is for everyone else. You work to suit your customers, not yourself.

But down at the port the workers turn up at set times whether there's a boat to unload or not. They sit about when there's no boat. And there aren't enough of them when there is.

The shift start times are fixed, the maximum shift is eight hours (plus half an hour "briefing time"), and the shifts have breaks of up to three hours. The port pays for 42.5 hours' of work but union workers only deliver 26.

The union is refusing the port's proposal to modernise work practices. That proposal would mean, for workers, a guaranteed 160 hours over four weeks, up to 12-hour shifts, and an end to the lengthy breaks.

No one will have to wait for the call to work. The boats are booked ahead of time so the roster can be scheduled four weeks in advance.

The pay is good. An Ernst & Young audit shows the average package last year was worth $91,000 (including pension and health insurance). The highest paid wharfie's package was $122,000. And they get five weeks' holiday.

Auckland has a beating heart. It's the port. And it's in trouble.

It lost Maersk's Southern Star services to the Port of Tauranga last December. Fonterra followed in January. That's $25 million in revenue gone. That's 15 per cent of the port's total revenue.

Ten years ago, Auckland handled double the containers that Tauranga did. Now they're on par. Tauranga is set to pass Auckland.

Tauranga has the flexibility and efficiency that Auckland lacks.

Auckland Port's dividend to Auckland Council is $20 million. A proper roster would double it. That's equivalent to a 1.5 per cent rate cut. But the real gain would be to Auckland businesses, jobs and wages.

Boosting the port would boost Auckland. Right now it's dragging Auckland down.

The Maritime Union have proved the port bosses' point through the negotiations several times over. They have gone on strike 12 times. And the port says productivity went up. Every time.

- Herald on Sunday

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