By MATHEW DEARNALEY
Tales of intimidation involving flying eggs, paint bombs and road spikes were a smokescreen to deny unionists new workplace access rights, says a lawyer.
In the Employment Court yesterday, Chief Judge Tom Goddard accepted that some behaviour on a union picket during a four-week strike at a Carter Holt Harvey timber plant in South Auckland was "most undesirable".
But he and fellow Judges Barrie Travis and Graeme Colgan put the company under intense scrutiny for an alleged restriction of union rights, before reserving their decision in a test of the year-old Employment Relations Act's cornerstone access provisions.
They suggested that, while the legislation required union representatives to comply with reasonable safety and health or security requirements, it seemed to lack any provision simply to deny access to workplaces on safety grounds.
"The solution might have to be a political one, of lobbying for an amendment rather than have us read something into words that are quite plain," said Judge Goddard.
Company witnesses cited wild scenes at a picket of its Interion (formerly Bestwoods) decorative timbers plant in Manurewa as justification for restricting access to National Distribution Union officials wanting to monitor compliance with the law.
Union president Bill Andersen and senior official Syd Keepa were arrested in late August when they demanded the right to inspect production lines to ensure no new staff had been hired to replace 49 strikers.
But they told the court they had no intention of intimidating anybody, and union lawyer Jock Lawrie presented a letter from Police Minister George Hawkins saying police were dropping trespass charges against the pair.
Mr Lawrie said the union suspected the company was using replacements in defiance of an important new legal provision. People were said to be sneaking in through a gap in the site's fence.
Company claims that steel spikes were used to let down the tyres of trucks entering the plant were a "smokescreen" to defeat the wishes of Parliament, he said, asking for a maximum $10,000 fine against the company.
But company lawyer Peter Kiely said his client had offered reasonable access, to meet non-striking management staff in the site's boardroom.
For the union to insist on seeing them on the factory floor was similar to demanding access to a hospital operating theatre to interview nurses, or to talk to air traffic controllers while aircraft were landing.
Judge Travis said the very point of the unionists' visit was to monitor the use of Machinery and he asked why they could not have been allowed to watch from a distance before interviewing staff later.
Plant commercial manager Christine Miller said she called all non-striking staff to the site's boardroom, but deemed it unsafe to let the unionists into the factory.
She told the court no replacement workers had been recruited, but management staff had been trained to use machines.
Letting the unionists talk to them at their machines would have been an unsafe distraction, and they feared intimidation if their identities were later relayed to the picket.
Management worker Liam Hallissey said his car came under a hail of eggs and paint bombs after he was seen loading trucks with a forklift. He took to sneaking through fields before dawn to get to work.
Sergeant Robert Crawford, who led 40 police to the site on the day of the access row, said the picketers were amicable most of the time, but non-striking workers were frequently abused and spikes were put in the way of incoming traffic.
A picketer was arrested for possessing a spike, another for damaging a headlight, and a union official was charged with obstruction.
By MATHEW DEARNALEY