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Vol. 76/No. 16      April 23, 2012

(front page)
New Zealand port workers
beat back bosses’ lockout
Militant/Patrick Brown
Port workers march back to work at Auckland, New Zealand, port April 5 after winning five-week battle against city-owned port’s attempt to impose “flexible” hours and subcontracting.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand—“It was a victory, but there’s a long way to go yet,” Brian Muncic, a member of the Maritime Union told the Militant April 5. After a five-week fight, the Ports of Auckland agreed March 30 to lift its lockout of 235 union members and return to negotiations.

An Employment Court ruling days earlier forced the company to back down from its plans to contract out union jobs.

The port workers had all returned to work by April 6. Engineers (machinists) returned one day earlier.

Port workers struck February 24 and set up round-the-clock pickets after refusing to accept the bosses’ demands for “flexible” work schedules. These could mean shifts lasting anywhere from three to 12 hours, and start times being changed on just five hours’ notice. On March 7, Ports of Auckland announced it would fire the workers, and shortly after hired firms Drake New Zealand and AWF Group to replace them with nonunion stevedores.

On March 22, union members voted to end their strike after the company gave informal agreement to the Employment Court to halt contracting out of their jobs. Ports of Auckland then, however, locked them out. Five days later the court issued an injunction suspending the contracting out until a further hearing is held on May 16.

The company’s March 30 agreement to lift the lockout and return to bargaining came just ahead of a further court hearing on the union’s claim that the lockout was illegal.

When worker correspondents for the Militant visited the picket line March 30, port workers were preparing to celebrate and were waving rewritten placards saying “Thank you Auckland” to sustained tooting from rush hour traffic.

“It’s a step in the right direction. But it’s not a victory until we walk back and reach resolution with a collective document,” said Danny Belsham, 60, a leading hand with 30 years on the wharf.

During the five-week strike and lockout, the company claimed to be operating the port at 30 percent of normal capacity with 57 nonunion workers and management staff, but was forced to limit container operations to imports as union members in other countries vowed not to service ships loaded by nonunion workers.

Ports of Auckland hired public relations firm SweeneyVesty, launched a website called “Need for change,” and took out several full-page newspaper advertisements to appeal for support for its union-busting campaign.

The Maritime Union’s pickets at the container terminal, on a busy city street, attracted substantial solidarity and financial support from other unions and working people. Pickets told of supporters stopping by and dropping off food and donating money.

During the lockout the picket line was boosted by workers on strike against the Oceania chain of retirement homes; meat workers locked out last year by Canterbury Meat Packers Rangitikei; meat workers currently locked out by AFFCO; and fellow port workers from the Maritime Union of Australia and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in the United States. Four players and a coach from the Canterbury Bulldogs rugby league team from Sydney, Australia, visiting for a match joined the picket March 18.

The secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, Paddy Crumlin, visited the picket March 29 and presented a check for NZ$100,000 ($82,000).

“The international solidarity was unprecedented and had a major bearing on the progressive resolution” of the dispute, said Belsham.

Businesses were feeling the pressure from the port shutdown. Importers’ Institute Secretary Daniel Silva said March 16 that its members were spending millions of dollars railing freight to Auckland from other ports, and a “strike surcharge” imposed by shipping line Maersk was due to be increased.

On March 30, Auckland Chambers of Commerce head Michael Barnett noted that the dispute was “becoming an issue affecting the health of many thousands of businesses directly and of the New Zealand economy as a whole.” Auckland is New Zealand’s largest container port and is owned by the city council.

In announcing the settlement, Ports of Auckland Chief Executive Tony Gibson said the port company had listened to the “views of the mayor and all other stakeholders.” But he insisted that the company was still determined to change what he called “historic work practices and restrictions which are out of touch with today’s reality.” The contracting out proposal “is still there, but for now it’s on hold,” he said.

“We’re locking down one picket and joining another,” said Belsham, as Maritime Union members made plans to join picket lines of meat workers still locked out by AFFCO in the coming days. “As they pledged solidarity to us, we will return the favor. We’ll do whatever it takes to help resolve that issue.”
Related articles:
On the Picket Line
Profit drive by NY bosses kills 2 more construction workers
Books of the Month column: ‘Open the jail doors or we will close the mill gates’
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