Ports of Auckland's determination to contract out watersiders' jobs has been apparent from the start of the current dispute. It has a strong case, given the need to improve productivity and place the port on a more competitive footing.

Even so, the means of achieving this remain important. Resolve should not descend into what could easily be seen as sheer bloody-mindedness. That, unfortunately, is the situation in which the port company placed itself yesterday when it served a lock-out notice, preventing nearly 300 watersiders from returning to work.

The move came a day after an informal conference of the Employment Court resulted in the company agreeing not to take further steps to make members of the Maritime Union redundant and to halt its contracting out processes. Further, the company and the union agreed to re-enter mediation for a new collective agreement.

The union responded to this outcome by indicating that, subject to a vote, its members would lift their strike and return to work.


Ports of Auckland, in a show of defiance, noted that it had agreed only to halt contracting for four weeks and was not backing down from its position on contracting out. Unsurprisingly, however, the development was seen as a u-turn by the company, which had previously maintained that its legal position on making the workers redundant and replacing them with non-union staff was "bulletproof".

There must now be doubt about that. Yet Ports of Auckland management deemed it necessary yesterday to re-emphasise its position by serving the lock-out notice. The existing right to contract out must remain, said the chairman, Richard Pearson, and this would be fundamental to the upcoming mediation.

That, and the company's determination, have never been in doubt. But its act was a step that moved beyond the posturing that is part and parcel of industrial bargaining into the territory of unnecessary provocation. All it guaranteed was that the union would dig its toes in still deeper.

It must also dismay the thousands of importers, their staff, and other customers of the port company. Many have remained patient during the dispute because they saw a more efficient and more flexible port emerging from it. It was important that the company continued to carry them with it.

Now, many are surely looking askance at a move that can only increase the bitterness on the waterfront. This will linger if the port company gets its way and many of the union members eventually accept jobs with the contractors.

Predictably, the lock-out notice has triggered calls from the union and the Green Party for the Mayor, Len Brown, to step into the dispute. He must resist this pressure. In the past, he has offered to mediate, only to be told by Mr Pearson that "we have passed the point of no return".

Mediation is now being sought by the company as a matter of urgency. Employment law says the proceedings require "good faith bargaining" even for parties at cross-purposes. Yesterday's rash step made that a far more difficult proposition.

Good faith bargaining dictates that parties bargaining for a collective agreement must conclude one unless there is a genuine reason not to. There is a process to go through, at the end of which there may be no agreement if an issue remains intractable. Ports of Auckland's case surely remains strong, if not perhaps "bulletproof".


Going down this track may take more time and be irksome for its management. But it should be pursued without tactics that jeopardise the support of its customers and the people of the city. The company should rescind the lock-out notice and concentrate on less aggressive means of achieving its ends.