The Auckland port has long been a battlefield, both industrial and ideological. The 1951 dispute remains an epochal event and even now it can be perilous in some company to refer to it as a strike rather than a lockout.

The industrially troubled 70s and 80s belonged to the watersiders. Casual labourers - known as "seagulls" - were gobsmacked to see how much the "wharfies" were paid, how little work they did and how readily they would call a stopwork meeting.

Corporatisation in 1988, and the formation of Ports of Auckland Limited, shifted the balance dramatically. Assisted by changes, in 1991 and 2000, to employment law, new-style managers presided over an increase in productivity, at some cost to employment security: more work was contracted out and the union muscle was seriously weakened.

That we live in a different era now is evidenced by the fact that the arm-wrestle taking place over the past six weeks at the port has not - yet - escalated into an industrial bloodbath. The port's unionised watersiders, represented by the Maritime Union, went on strike for the fifth time this week and the latest round of mediation talks on Thursday failed to break the impasse.

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In a reverse of the usual arithmetic, the port company is offering a 10 per cent increase in the basic hourly pay rate; the workers want only 2.5 per cent. The sticking point is that the company wants to replace the existing eight-hour shifts with ones ranging from five to 12 hours; the workers don't like the uncertainty of such an arrangement and the potential damage to family life it implies. They want the existing contract rolled over for six months while both parties investigate ways to boost productivity. The deadlock looks intractable.

To some extent, industrial disputes are clashes of personality and that certainly seems to be a strong element here. Company chief executive Tony Gibson, a former shipping company man who makes no secret of his antipathy towards unionists, was winning the public relations war initially, but has created an impression of arrogance and high-handedness in the past week.

Like any industrial dispute, both sides have stretched the truth. Gibson tried to blame Fonterra's decision to take its business to Tauranga on the industrial unrest when it's plain that much larger forces were having an influence.

He also claimed wharfies were earning $91,000 a year - a figure that could be achieved only by working punishing amounts of overtime. (He tries to explain that better in a letter to the paper on the next page).

Maritime Union president Garry Parsloe appeared to call his bluff on that matter by saying the workers on $91,000 would happily give up $10,000. But how much do they really work? The danger now is that this is becoming a matter of ego - both men should avoid that.

But beyond the personalities involved in the battle's front lines there is much at stake here. The port, which suffered a 37 per cent drop in net profit for the year to last June 30, is faced with a demand from its owner, Auckland Council, to increase profits. Greater efficiency on the waterfront would obviously benefit the economy, both local and regional, but it plainly cannot be accomplished without greater labour flexibility.

In that regard, the watersiders need to acknowledge that the game has changed. In the midst of a major global economic downturn, shipping companies will naturally play ports off against each other to cut costs. If the union really has the interests of its workers at heart, it will be seeking to work with the port chiefs to make Auckland an irresistible destination.

The port, for its part, needs to step back from the edge of the abyss on this one. Gibson's plan to sack the entire workforce is hotheaded and provocative. At the same time, the council should scale back its profit expectations, which seem excessive in the current economic environment.

That could provide the union and the port with the breathing space to negotiate an orderly transition to more flexible work arrangements.