“At the end of the day we achieved a collective contract with the union. In that sense we won,” Justin Kaimoana, union secretary at the Wairoa plant, where workers were locked out in 2015 and 2016, told the Militant March 18.
In 2012 AFFCO, acquired by anti-union food giant Talleys, locked out part of the workforce. Workers fought back with pickets and rallies, but after the dispute was settled new hires were forced onto nonunion Individual Employment Agreements and union membership fell.
When the union contract ended in 2013, the company refused to negotiate. After the seasonal layoff in 2015, the bosses demanded all union members sign onto Individual Employment Agreements. In most plants workers complied and returned to work, although many remained union members. At the Wairoa plant workers refused and 250 were locked out. After a determined five-month fight, they won their jobs back. The Employment Court ruled the lockout was illegal.
Union members at other plants like Manawatu and Rangiuru fought a wide range of company harassment.
The new contract is the result of court-ordered mediation by a judge after the company tried to use new labor laws to walk away from negotiations.
Nonunion Individual Employment Agreement workers now comprise some 80 percent of AFFCO’s workforce.
“I’m not very impressed with the outcome, but we had to sign it to get a contract,” Kevin Hickey, a trimmer in the boning room at the Manawatu plant, said by phone.
Hilton Rohe, a mutton butcher with 37 years at Wairoa, said that several clauses are a step back. The workday has been extended slightly; weekly guaranteed minimum pay has been cut back; and premium pay for overtime has been reduced for the Wairoa plant. Provisions for seniority, important in controlling who is laid off or called back first in this seasonal industry, are preserved in line with court rulings, but worded to give the company some leeway.
Nearly 20 workers at Wairoa, including himself, have just been laid off with no regard for seniority, Rohe said.
Kara Iraia, union secretary and boning room worker at AFFCO’s Manawatu plant, was suspended March 21 for handing out a pamphlet to nonunion workers. “Before the workers never had a choice. Now they can join the union,” she said.
Rangiuru union secretary and butcher Bertie Ratu sees the new contract as a “foundation to build on.” She said by email that at her plant “the majority are now union members and still growing.”
Hickey noted that the union is also gaining members at Manawatu. “That’s a plus. Many were just waiting for the contract to be signed,” he said.
The battle is clearly not over. “AFFCO is still pushing to deunionize the plants,” said Kaimoana. The company is appealing to the Supreme Court the Employment Court ruling that the lockout at Wairoa was illegal.
“Everything we’ve won in the courts they’ve challenged,” said Kaimoana. “We have to win the Individual Employment Agreement workers to the union with the new contract. We’ve got rights and they haven’t.”
Patrick Brown contributed to this article.
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