The industrial action at the Ports of Auckland has reached the point, when a compromise solution is about as likely as there being a compromise solution over the Falkland Islands.

Instead, like the Falkland Islands, there will be a war, and there will be a winner and a loser. There will also be the significant possibility of casualties from other parties.

The two combatants are the Ports of Auckland (POAL) management team led by Field Marshall Toby Gibson and the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) led by Generalissimus Garry Parsloe.

The stakes are high for both sides. The losing side will be humiliated and powerless.


POAL look set to sub-contract out stevedoring services to a private contractor - as the Ports of Tauranaga does. Almost beyond doubt, this will be challenged in court, and appealed. A final decision on the legality will be made by the Employment Court or even the Court of Appeal.

Even if the decision to sub-contract out is upheld legally, the Maritime Union will call for a boycott of the Ports of Auckland. They will try and persuade other unions on site to refuse to work, or for truck drivers to refuse to drive to it, or the Railways workers to refuse to take trains there. So the industrial action could well spread.

MUNZ has also indicated it will call for a global boycott of the port. They will ask their international federation to instruct crew on ships to refuse to use the port. You may even see wharfies in other countries refusing to load up a ship, if Auckland is one of the destinations.

It is too early to say who will win. But let us look at the price of failure.

If MUNZ loses, then it is a catastrophic loss. Their members will lose all the current entitlements they have under a collective contract, and have to accept individual take it or leave it contracts with the sub-contractor.

MUNZ itself could well lose 20% or so of its total membership, and if POAL win, then other ports may follow their example. MUNZ could in fact be all but wiped out in a couple of years.

But the stakes are equally high for the POAL CEO and senior management. If the courts stop their sub-contracting proposal, then they have lost their trump card. They will have to surrender to the union, and agree to their terms or face more and more business going to Tauranga and Napier.

Likewise if their board or their owners buckle under pressure, the end result is the same. You would expect the CEO to resign in humiliation.


But the damage will not just be to the two main parties, just as the Falklands conflict dragged in the United States. The US ended up extremely offside with its normal ally Britain, as it urged them not to respond to the Argentinian military action with their own military, but instead to negotiate a peaceful surrender.

The NZ Labour Party may also end up offside with its traditional allies. MUNZ is affiliated to the Labour Party. Labour Whip and Industrial Relations Spokesperson Darien Fenton has been seen on the picket line. Deputy Leader Grant Robertson has the taxpayer pay rent on his behalf to MUNZ for his electorate office in Wellington.

However despite these links, no official comment has come from Labour on the strike, and what they think should happen. I happen to think this is very smart politics from new leader David Shearer. However a growing number of voices on the left are demanding he take a stand. They should be careful of what they wish for, as if he is forced into taking a stand - it might not be the one they want.

Shearer will be aware that POAL have been very effective at communicating to the public how the average (mean) wage for a full-time wharfie is $91,000, and that this is generated off an average 43 (or 49 if you include leave entitlements) hours of employment a week, of which only 28 hours are spent actually working. It would not be smart politics to start his leadership off by being seen captive to the unions which help fund Labour.

The other party that may get dragged in are the owners - the Auckland Council, led by Len Brown. The Council has formally signed off in support of the POAL strategic plan and expressed confidence in the Board. However the Mayor will not want to be seen to be endorsing POAL's union busting contracting out strategy. There may be a limit to how long the Mayor can profess to be on the side of both POAL and MUNZ. He may also have to choose.

The only hard and fast prediction I will make is that the war will not be over quickly. The court action alone could well take months to resolve. The longer it takes to resolve, the better it is for Tauranga and Napier, and the worse it is for Auckland.