Article – Cameron Walker
Over the past three months the industrial dispute at the Ports of Auckland has received a lot of media attention. The dispute began when the collective employment agreement between the Port’s management and the majority of its workforce expired in September.
Fighting to Save Their Livelihood: The Ports of Auckland Dispute
Originally published in the Summer School edition of Craccum: the University of Auckland’s student magazine.
By Cameron Walker
February 14, 2012
Over the past three months the industrial dispute at the Ports of Auckland has received a lot of media attention. The dispute began when the collective employment agreement between the Port’s management and the majority of its workforce expired in September. A collective agreement is created when the workers at a firm form themselves into a union so they can all negotiate one employment contract with the employer that covers everyone, rather than an individual contract for every worker. The Ports of Auckland and the Maritime Union, which represents seafarers and port workers in New Zealand, failed to come to an agreement on a new collective contract after the company demanded conditions that greatly reduced employment security and guaranteed hours of work.
Under the recently expired collective agreement fulltime employees were guaranteed 40 hours of work per week. The agreement allowed for 25% of the Port’s employees to be casuals. They could be called into work on a shift by shift basis when work was available but they had to be given shifts of at least 8 hours at a time.
The Ports of Auckland management are now demanding that the port workers sign an agreement that does not guarantee any shifts, hours or days off. This has greatly upset the workers. Under such a system workers will be unsure each week if they will be able to get enough work to make a living. As work happens at the Port 24/7 it would be very difficult to plan work at another job to make up the difference or maintain a family life.
The management also wants to be able to give any worker any task at the Port, at a moment’s notice. For example, a worker who usually packs containers and has little experience driving a crane could suddenly be told to drive a crane. This is very concerning because a number of jobs at the Port are very dangerous and require skilled training and experience to be done safely. If a crane or straddle carrier driver makes a false move stacking a large number of containers it can result in death or serious injury.
The Port management’s refusal to budge on these demands is what led to the workers conducting five strikes over the past two months. The company also locked out the workers for two 24 hour stretches at the start of December. A lockout is when the company refuses to allow workers to come to work, in an attempt to weaken a union. Under New Zealand employment law strikes and lockouts can only be conducted when a contract is being negotiated or if there are urgent health and safety issues at the workplace.
Port management claims ‘flexible’ conditions are needed to compete with the partially privatised Ports of Tauranga, which is marginally outperforming the Council owned Auckland Port. Ports of Tauranga has a completely casual deunionised workforce. While business commentators in recent weeks have regularly praised the Port of Tauranga’s rate of return to shareholders, little attention has been given to the more unsavoury aspects of the Port’s supposed economic miracle.
Instead of having permanent employees the Port of Tauranga hires casual contract workers from several companies as they are needed. The contracting companies compete with each other to provide the cheapest labour. As the Maritime Union argues, this has led to sloppy health and safety standards at the Port. There have been three deaths from industrial accidents in the past two years. In contrast Auckland has had no fatalities in the same period.
Some business leaders, right wing political activists and politicians have seen the dispute as a good way of pushing a wider agenda. Christine Fletcher and George Wood, from the National/Act aligned block of Auckland City councillors Citizens and Ratepayers, have used the dispute to claim the Port would be more efficient if it was partially privatised. The National Party as a whole has refused to comment on the dispute but this has not stopped some of its MPs and activists using the dispute to call for the curtailment of unions’ rights to negotiate better pay and conditions for their members. National MP for Botany, Jami Lee Ross, even wrote a commentary for the news website Scoop suggesting that unions should not receive a special place in NZ employment legislation.
A number of commentators in the media, such as former National Party MP and Food and Grocery Council CEO Katherine Rich and prominent blogger David Farrar have uncritically repeated claims by the Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson that the average port worker is paid $91,000 a year. No detailed figures have been released to back this claim. In contrast the Maritime Union has released a fact sheet showing how much their members at the Ports of Auckland are paid. A Ports of Auckland worker is guaranteed $1090.40 for a 40 hour week, that is $56,700 per year. The union says earning $91,000 a year would be theoretically possible if one worked 1377 hours on top of a normal working year. This would be the equivalent of an extra 34 full working weeks on top of a full year of work. Workers at the Port are not paid penal rates for working overtime. Working these sorts of hours would mean almost never having a day off. This imaginary $91,000 figure also doesn’t take into account that overtime is not always offered because there are not always extra ships visiting the Port that need loading and unloading.
The dispute appears to be far from over. On January 10th Ports’ CEO Tony Gibson told the NZ Herald that he was “absolutely” prepared to fire the entire unionised workforce and replace them with casuals.
Over the past 21 years NZ employment law has greatly reduced the ability of workers to organise unions in their workplace. In many industries real wages have declined and decent working conditions have been eroded by casualisation. The Maritime Union has always been a union that is not only a strong voice for their members but also a passionate advocate on wider issues of creating a fair society.
If the Ports of Auckland workers are able to successfully beat the Port Management’s attempt to wreck their livelihoods it will make managers in other industries think twice before engaging in similar behaviour. It will be a victory for those who want a fair society in New Zealand and a defeat for those who have pushed for a greater gap between rich and poor by wrecking the pay and conditions of the New Zealand workforce over the past two decades.
What can you do to support the Ports of Auckland workers?
The Maritime Union have set up an information page about the dispute. The website has a sign up page if you would like to support the workers by handing out leaflets, attending pickets and other activities. http://www.saveourport.com/
Join the Facebook group SaveOurPort.com for updates about the dispute http://www.facebook.com/#!/saveourport