Class struggle today: Ports of Auckland & AFFCO disputes

Mike Kay

In the first half of 2012 we have seen the bosses attack New Zealand workers in some of their strongest bastions: the Ports of Auckland and the freezing works. In this talk I want to focus on a single aspect of both disputes, namely, the role of iwi in assisting the workers.

This was most pronounced in the Talley’s/ AFFCO dispute, where up to 90% of the union membership is Māori. Also, quite crucially, 40% of beef production at AFFCO comes from Māori trusts. Talley’s must have perceived the defeat suffered by unionists at ANZCO/ CMP in Martin last year as a signal that they too could finish off the union in their plants. After a mere ten hours at the negotiating table Talley’s locked out hundreds of workers who refused to sign Individual Employment Agreements that gave away terms and conditions that had been built up over years.

Now it’s no secret that the leadership of Meat Workers Union struggled to organise the dispute. After 20 years without a major “blue”, they were caught on the hop by Talley’s full frontal assault. They turned to the CTU for help. But it was the involvement of the CTU’s Māori representative body, the Rūnanga, and its Vice President Māori Syd Keepa in particular, that were decisive in turning around the fortunes of the meatworkers.

On 23 April, as the lockout started creating real hardship in whānau, Syd convened a conference call of iwi leaders representing areas where workers were locked out. They reached an agreement in principle to support the workers and demand that Talley’s negotiate a settlement in good faith. When they presented Talley’s with a letter from one of their competitors, Silver Fern Farms, offering iwi to transport their stock to their plants for free, the Company started taking notice.

The iwi leaders were able to apply substantial economic leverage. Talley’s must have been aware that if they refused to budge the iwi would also be able to challenge their use of Māori fishing quotas. When one iwi leader from the Rotorua area tried to declare his neutrality between the Company and the workers, he was “jumped on” by other iwi leaders and his own people according to Syd. Finally, on the 22 May, after an all-night negotiations session lasting until 5am, the parties signed off an agreement, that on balance has to be called a win for the workers.

Whilst the rank and file of the Meat Workers Union was absolutely staunch throughout the lockout, the dispute revealed real weaknesses at the top of the union. The CTU have charged Labour MP Carol Beaumont with restructuring the union, which may include an amalgamation with the Dairy Workers Union. I think this must be a cause for concern for socialists since the DWU is not just supportive of the Labour Party, but in a very real sense is controlled by the Labour Party.

In the Ports of Auckland dispute, which is far from settled, Māori entities played a lesser, but noteworthy role. Both Ngāti Whātua and the Māori Trust Board were engaged in behind the scenes lobbying of the council and the mayor, at the prompting of the Rūnanga. Because they are stakeholders in the Ports of Auckland, and must be consulted over major changes, such as the proposed expansion of the Port, they are able to exert some influence. They contributed to the political pressure on PoL to rescind the redundancies and return to bargaining.

In conclusion, I think that with class struggle at such a low ebb in Aotearoa, external support for winning disputes becomes ever more crucial. Workers often cannot rely on industrial muscle alone when many disputes are not 100% solid. Even in the well-unionised Ports of Auckland, wharfies faced the dispiriting prospect of a minority of workers scabbing on them.

We probably need to reassess our analysis of iwi in the light of their recent interventions into these disputes. Previously we would have characterized them as straightforwardly capitalist organizations. But here they appear more like a hybrid formation, similar to the union bureaucracy, susceptible to democratic pressure from below under certain conditions. I am under no illusions that there is an element of opportunism amongst some iwi leaders. I’ve no doubt that Tuku Morgan, for instance, is keen to “big up” his pro-worker credentials after facing so much criticism from the Tainui flaxroots. But despite the profit motive being alive and well within the iwi corporates, they have on this occasion shown that they are capable of playing a progressive role.

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