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Vol. 76/No. 23      June 11, 2012

New Zealand meat workers’
strike defeats union-busting
Maori farmers’ boycott threats aided struggle
AUCKLAND, New Zealand—“The most important thing was to get a collective contract and to get back in with the union intact,” said Don Arnold, president of the Meat Workers Union at the AFFCO beef plant in Horotiu, in a May 28 phone interview. On May 24 union members at the plant voted 137 to 9 to accept a settlement of the hard-fought three-month contract fight against the company.

In meetings over the week ending May 28, strikers at all eight of AFFCO’s North Island meat works voted for the contract by margins of more than 90 percent, Arnold said. The union organizes some 1,150 workers in the plants, which kill and process beef and sheep meat and by-products for local and export markets.

After standing strong on the picket line throughout the dispute, “workers are more committed to the union—that is a victory in itself,” said Arnold, who works as a freezer hand in the plant.

The AFFCO workers went on strike in early May. Two months earlier, the company had imposed a selective lockout of hundreds of workers after the union refused to give the company a free hand to increase kill quotas and cut the workforce.

AFFCO also wanted to abolish seniority protections for workers being rehired after seasonal layoffs. “We kept seniority” in the agreement, said Arnold, although “the company got stuff too, like more flexibility around tallies” and a probation period for new hires. The two-year contract proposal includes a roughly 2 percent annual wage increase.

“They wanted to wipe out the union,” Arnold said.

By the time of the strike vote, the picket line at Horotiu had become a 24-hour operation. “Most of the union members—about 80 percent—hung tough, but we did lose some,” said Arnold.

At the time of the settlement, he said, union and nonunion workers each numbered about 200 in the plant. As workers returned following the strike, the company announced it would place the afternoon shift on seasonal layoff.

AFFCO strikers won solidarity from other workers, including Maritime Union members in Auckland. They had struck the Auckland port Feb. 24 for five weeks to stave off the port company’s contract demands, which included “flexible” new work schedules for shifts lasting anywhere from three to 12 hours.

As the AFFCO workers continued to fight, a number of representatives of Maori iwi (tribal) authorities voiced concern about the hardships facing strikers who were Maori. Urging a settlement, some threatened to stop supplying AFFCO works with livestock from Maori-owned farms.

Maori comprise some 78 percent of AFFCO’s workforce, according to Tukoroirangi Morgan, an iwi negotiator. Arnold said the iwis’ intervention was decisive.

“We have both sought to learn from this dispute and ensure that moving forward we build on the opportunity for a new type of relationship between the company, the union and its members,” said Andrew Talley, whose family owns AFFCO, in a joint media statement from company and union.

“We will see what comes of that,” Arnold told the Militant.
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