This article was written for The Spark by Michael Will who is a waterside worker and delegate for the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ).
The Unions of this country are being attacked at the moment, our freedom and rights as workers and human beings are being eroded by attacks by employers and the government.
No labour dispute has been played out in the media as much as the recent struggle between the Maritime Union of New Zealand and Ports of Auckland Ltd. The Maritime Union represents a number of workers involved in the wharf and Shipping industry. These workers have endured a lot of attacks in their history- notably the famous 1951 lockout where laws were passed to make it illegal to feed locked out workers and publish material to get the message to the Public.
The Ports of Auckland dispute began when bargaining failed to reach an agreement, as the Auckland City Council had demanded an increase in their dividend from 6% to 12% over the next five years. Considering that all other publicly owned Ports in the Australasian area operate at around 6% this was an unfair and unrealistic demand. The wharfies had offered to take a lower increase in wages for the retention of job security, and a roster system that gave them a balance between work and family life. CEO Tony Gibson has famously stated that “Unions need to realistic, family life just isn’t financially competitive”.
Working on the wharf sounds great when the media has portrayed them as overpaid bludgers (among other things) working there is not a glamorous as people have been led to believe. Shift work is hard in all occupations, on the waterfront you’re working outside in all seasons, under a system where you start as a casual with no guarantee of steady work, then become a “PRP” (permanent relief pool) guaranteed just 6 days in any fortnight, then finally to a permanent which guarantees workers 5 day working weeks. Extra shifts can be worked above these times but can involve 16 hour days (this is where the overtime kicks in). These shifts take a lot out of workers, especially if working through the night. It is classed as a high-risk job and there have been a number of deaths in the last few years.
Union members and supporters around the country rallied around for our brothers and sisters up North; They were supported financially by money from our “Fighting Fund” that is collected weekly for various reasons that arise in our organisation, including helping the local communities in our local branches. The fight against casualisation in Auckland was a fight for all workers, not just our union. The most important factor was to feed and help financially the workers and their family’s this was out main priority. An occupation was set up outside Ferguson Container Terminal in Auckland with supporters arriving everyday to offer food and time on the picket line.
Strike notices were delivered as bargaining broke down over the collective as Ports of Auckland would not budge with their intentions of taking the workers conditions and contracting the labour to so called ‘manning agencies’ Allied Workforce and Drake (these company‘s “scalp” the workers wages). A third company was going to be set up by the Port themselves as they were the ones with the straddles (that carry the containers) and fork hoists and all the other gear needed to lash and lift the containers from ships to the wharf.
Non-union labour (scabs) crossed the picket line to keep working on the wharf while talks ground to a halt. MUNZ Chairman Pearson went onto talk shows as did Garry Parsloe the National union’s President. The whole dispute was being played out in the public arena. The thing that annoys me the most -as it does any other union member from any union- is that the same people that scab on other workers are enjoying conditions that are negotiated by the union and ratified by the “rank-and-file” at meetings in a true democratic way, there is no “dictatorship” from union leaders and our union stop work meetings- “Stoppy’s” are lively and vocal. This is how the union operates, as a collective. As the Maritime Union is a national organisation, action was taken by other ports in other parts of the country. Ships were held up in Tauranga, Wellington and Lyttelton, with support from other unions, Occupy Auckland and Otautahi Solidarity Network in Christchurch.
A march was called on the 10th of March from Brittomart Station to the wharfie Occupy site down at the gates of Ferguson Terminal. This was attended by every organisation that cared whether it was a union, or an activist organisation that cared for a quality of life. Up to 5000 attended, making it one of the biggest Marches that has been seen for a number of years. It took a good 2 hours to walk the distance, with chants of “Who’s Port? Our Port!” and “Tahi, Rua, Toru Fa, Ports of Auckland has gone too far!” I think the best solidarity came from locked out meatworkers who came in at the back of the march with a spine chilling chant and Waiata that could be heard from all that had gathered that day.
An employment court judge ruled that the Watersiders and management mediate a return to work and contract talks, POAL answered this by locking the gates again, but agreed to pay the wharfies for the week form when they were ordered by the judge to go back to work, their reasoning for this was a “Health and Safety issue” After all the time without work I think the only thing on the minds of the workers was to get back to the jobs they knew best and earn some money to get back on their feet again.
This dispute is not over until the new contract is signed, Watersiders were originally offered around 10% pay increases with contracting out of their labour to AWF and Drake NZ. The Unions response was that it wanted a 2-3% pay increase with the retention of what they already had – job security. With the Port taking record profits for the first half of this year, it was not an unreasonable demand, and was done in “Good Faith “ by the union negotiators (and carried by vote from the rank and file members). The dispute has become a global issue, with the International Longshoremen and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) being heavily involved with support.
The MUA had a very similar dispute in 1998 with Patrick Stevedoring. Their General Secretary Paddy Crumlin is also the Head of the International Transport Federation (ITF). The ITF then classed Auckland Port a “Port of Convenience” the word “Convenience” is used in the shipping industry for the “Flag of Convenience” (FOC) used by vessels that trade around the world registered in countries with lax regulations, the Rena being the most infamous example of this in New Zealand.
Changes to workplace relations and continuing attacks on unions especially since the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 has seen union membership numbers dwindle to just a small percentage of the national workforce. A new approach is needed to encourage and educate young people that strength in numbers and common goals of equal rights and equal pay for the same work is where the unions principles are. The bottom line is that the only way forward is to unify all the unions in the common fight.