Denise Roche

Employer militancy is the new black

by Denise Roche

I spent last weekend on the picket line at the Ports of Auckland with the Maritime Union members and their families. It was there on Saturday that Council of Trade Unions President, Helen Kelly, broke the news that meat processing company AFFCO – owned by that long-standing New Zealand family company Talley’s – was planning to lock out 762 workers at 5 sites across small-town New Zealand.  And on Thursday, I’ll be joining aged care workers – members of the Service and Food Workers Union and the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation – on the picket line outside one of the 59 rest homes owned by Oceania.

This climate of industrial unrest has not simply appeared out of thin air.

The Ports of Auckland workers have been negotiating their employment agreement since 6 September last year. Despite offering to make significant changes to provide more flexibility, including a 12 hour shift option for some workers, they’ve been stalled by the management’s demands for more and more “flexibility”– to the point where the company now says it wants to make them all redundant and contract out the workforce.

In the provincial towns of Moerewa, Manawatu, Imlay (Whanganui), Horotiu (Waikato) and Wairoa, the AFFCO meatworkers have also been fending off the bosses’ claims for more and more “flexibility” around rostering. The meatworkers and AFFCO management have been negotiating their employment agreements for 18 months. The employer has today locked out 120 workers as a tactic to get them to agree.

This week the Oceania workers are also going on strike. It takes a lot to get nurses and rest home workers to strike, because they care for their elderly clients and don’t want to jeopardise their wellbeing. These workers are asking for a cost of living pay claim of around 3%, with back pay. The company – which is controlled by Australian equity firm Macquarie Global Infrastructure Fund and currently spending millions on new facilities – is offering them a measly 1% over 3 years, and wants to cut overtime.

This is not about workers being greedy.  It’s about employer bullying. It’s about employers seeking to bust the unions and achieve full “flexibility” – aka casualisation of the workforce.  A recent Listener article discussed the exorbitant pay rates for CEOs and the huge disparity between their pay and that earned by average workers. Meanwhile, many caregivers at Oceania earn as little as $13.61 per hour, just above the minimum wage.  A stevedore’s weekly pay for a 40 hour week is $1090. Meatworkers earn about $17-18 an hour during the season, and nothing in the downtimes.  Compare this to the $21 million profits listed by Talley’s in 2011; the $750,000 per year the Ports of Auckland boss Tony Gibson is paid; and the $16.2 million in profits made by Oceania in the 12 months ended May 31 2010.

The push on the part of employers to casualise the workforce and hold down already low wages is also being actively fostered by John Key’s government, which is busy pursuing its own increasingly militant policy agenda.  Welfare reforms play into creating an insecure workforce –   with more sticks aimed at those on benefits as described in yesterday’s welfare reforms there’s a larger pool from the poorest scrabbling for scarce jobs, potentially undercutting those who dare to unionise and negotiate their working conditions and pay collectively.

The Government’s agenda of beneficiary bashing and changes to employment law to weaken workers’ bargaining power go hand in hand. And that creates exactly the right environment for employers to take a hard-line approach to resolving – or not resolving – employment agreement negotiations.

Published in Economy, Work, & Welfare by Denise Roche on Tue, February 28th, 2012   

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