As part of negotiations for a contract to replace the one that expired two years ago, the bosses want to scrap seniority provisions that currently protect workers from being arbitrarily moved to jobs that might have worse pay and conditions. "It will depend on which way you smile where they put you," said Dennis Patikura, a production worker with 35 years experience on the job.
To avoid paying overtime, the company wants to introduce "salarized" production contracts, rather than paying hourly wage rates, and establish a basic 12-hour day on a four-days-on, four-days-off shift pattern. The union says the "salary" being offered is about $10,000 below what the company pays to workers at its Kawerau plant. "They also want the right to call us in on our days off, which we reject," said Pete Mathis.
A specialized team of firefighters currently deals with fires and chemical spills at the plant. The company proposes to replace this unit by assigning other workers to respond to emergencies on top of doing their own jobs. According to Paul Ireland, a firefighter on the picket line, this will seriously compromise safety standards.
Carter Holt Harvey, the second-biggest listed company on the New Zealand stock exchange, is half-owned by the giant U.S.-based company International Paper.
Forestry and forestry products is an industry in which New Zealand capitalists are aiming to be competitive on world markets. Carter Holt Harvey chief executive Christopher Liddell told the August 19, 2002 New Zealand Herald: "We have the trees here, we have the markets relatively speaking in this part of the world. If we canít make the forest products industry successful, what the hell can we make successfully?"
For years, the employers have been hammering away at the theme that New Zealandís forestry industry must lower costs if it is to compete with new mills in countries like Russia, China, Indonesia and Chile. What this means in practice was made clear by Kinleithís chief executive Brice Landman in an interview in the Dec. 14, 2002, New Zealand Herald: "We canít control the electricity price. We canít control the wood price. The only thing left was the labor price."
In the past 20 years the Kinleith mill has gone through major restructuring. The company has laid off nearly 650 workers in the last decade. The bosses have been able to make inroads into workersí conditions and union organization. In 1989 the mill employed 1,100 workers and manufactured 400,000 metric tons of pulp and paper annually. In 2002, it produced 532,000 metric tons with a workforce of 545.
These attacks have generated labor resistance. The last major strike at Kinleith in 1992 lasted 11 weeks. One of the workers on the picket line March 29 wore a cap with the words "Frontline 1992."
In January, the company laid off 266 maintenance and 36 production workers. This followed unsuccessful attempts by the union to challenge the layoffs in court. ABB, a private contractor, now handles maintenance and has hired only 173 workers at lower wages for the job.
The Kinleith strikers are reaching out to fellow unionists for support. Union delegates from Kinleith have visited workers at Carter Holt Harveyís Kawerau pulp mill. Food is being distributed to the strikers from a union welfare fund, which has received contributions from other union sites. On March 27, a bus load of 30 strikers traveled to Auckland and staged a lively picket outside the companyís head office. New Zealand Council of Trade Unions secretary Paul Goulter, who was at the picket line, said an appeal had gone out to the councilís other 33 affiliated unions.
Felicity Coggan contributed to this article.
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