Employer militancy is the new black

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.

About Denise Roche 161 Articles

Green Party MP

29 Comments Posted

  1. You’ve been very hard done by, Misanthropic Curmudgeon – very hard done by.
    I’d complain about it if I were you. You’ll attract huge sympathy here. Mugabe and Thompson – peas in a pod!

  2. How come somebody copped a warning for likening a poster to Mugabe, but DeepRed gets off for likening me to the villified Alisdair Thompson?

    If Thompson did not warrnt his villification in ths blog by some posters, then what gives?!?!?

    [frog: As far as I am aware, Alasdair Thompson didn’t organise assassinations, beatings, forcible evictions, mass starvation, and electoral fraud. Yes, he is a sexist creep, but any comparison with Mugabe is ridiculous.]

  3. The Government’s agenda of beneficiary bashing and changes to employment law to weaken workers’ bargaining power go hand in hand.

    Absolutely!!!! The former being an attempted distraction (aleit tried before and failed) of public attention from the economic mismanagement of the Government.

    There is no point in the welfare reforms if the Government believes our economy will improve as they would not be needed. If our economy remains in this state, the ‘reforms’ (aka bene. bashing) will not work.

    Intelligent NZers are not hoodwinked nor are they impressed.

  4. MC, what facts? You simply seem unwilling to recognise the point I was making. The only consistent thing, about making the jobs of non union workers permanent and trying to make the jobs of union memebers casual, is an attack on the union jobs, an attack on union pay and conditions.

    Thanks for drawing that to our attention, even if that was not your intention.

  5. SPC appears ignorant of some basic facts: The union has been persuing legal action against the employer to prevent casual ‘lashers’ being given perment jobs.

    Read that again, SPC. the employer wants them permenent (and therefore give them ‘conditions’), the union wants these lashers to stay casualised.

    Which makes the union complaints about their own jobs being casualised quite hypcritical.

  6. MC, is the reason why casual workers have been offered permanent work that they are not members of the union?

    I mean, what’s the logic of trying to make the casual workers permanent staff and make the union workers casual staff?

    Apart from smashing union wages and conditions of course.

  7. DeepReds attempt at a personal smear fails to come even close. But I suspect that it makes DeepRed feel safe and secure to be able to categorize and label any dissenting voice and put it in one safe little place.

  8. Toads defence of an organsiation that boasts about 1% female staff – with unncessary strenth-based obstacles to further female recruitmenst – is nted and laudable. If one subscribes to that sort of thing.

    If it was any other minimal-labour job that effectively discriminated on gender, you’d be howling at the moon!

    Further, I note Toad delicately sidestepps the issue around the union fighting against other casual staff getting permenent contracts. I wonder why that is?

  9. @Misanthropic Curmudgeon 11:47 AM

    Oh, come on, MC – you’ve been reading too much Cactus Kate and Whaleoil. One member of the MUNZ Local 13 executive wrote a column that contained racism and sexism, and they (and you) use it to attempt to portray the entire union and its membership as racist and sexist.

    You are either being sucked in by the right’s smear campaign against the MUNZ, or are part of it.

    And of course the dispute is about casualisation. The MUNZ have agreed to almost all the PoAL’s other demands in negotiations. What they won’t agree to is their members having no guaranteed hours of work and never knowing from day to day when they will be required to work or when they won’t.

  10. Quite why The Greens are supporting a bunch of sexist racist warfies is facinating, in light of The Greens alledged stance on equality and equity.

    Further, to try and frame this as a casualisation issue, when this usnion has gone to court to prevent other casual staff being offered permenent contracts, shows just how hypocritical this union is – and The Greens for supporting them

  11. Sam,

    …but it does suggest that these busuinesses are profitable and that running down wages and conditions is a management choice, not a necessity.

    Conversely it does suggest that these busuinesses are only marginally profitable and that NOT paying higher wages and conditions is a management necessity to maintain the business and the jobs.

    I would suggest that many many SME are in that exact situation.

  12. “You cant suggest just because profits exist that they should be lowered and wages bumped up without a proper analysis…”

    No, but it does suggest that these busuinesses are profitable and that running down wages and conditions is a management choice, not a necessity.

  13. @Toad. I see the availability of immigration especially for skilled jobs is what allows employers to get away with holding wages down.

    Without that bolthole for employers they would have had to raise wages to attract Kiwi back from offshore.

  14. @Ivy 10:11 PM

    …I believe Andrew Atkin’s point is still correct that high immigration increases labour supply, and so companies can get away with paying less/offering worse conditions because of the difficulty in finding work.

    Yes, that can happen, but it is not high immigration that is a driver of the current employer militancy Denise refers to, because there simply hasn’t been high immigration:

    Annual net migration loss continues, driven by rising departures

    There were 84,200 arrivals and 86,000 departures over the year to December 2011, resulting in a net loss of 1,900 people. This net loss is the highest since the year ended August 2001 (4,400).

  15. Which is not doubt why the employer approach is synchronised with a period of high unemployment and government plans to lay off workers in the public sector, local government and work test more and more beneficiaries.

    We can assume that the government never had any real plans to catch up to Oz wage levels.

  16. Whilst it was a bit of a thread derail, I believe Andrew Atkin’s point is still correct that high immigration increases labour supply, and so companies can get away with paying less/offering worse conditions because of the difficulty in finding work.

    You are right that it has rather little to do with PoAL. But it does have quite a bit to do with how rest home management can get away with paying almost minimum wage to many of their workers- simply there are many, many people wanting to do the work.

  17. Toad:

    There is nothing ‘red herring’ about it. When the labour supply is tight, employers have no choice but to pay staff more to keep them. Supply and demand.

    When labour is more costly this incentivises employers to invest in capital to offset those labour costs.

  18. @adamsmith1922 6:35 PM

    The problem with your “invisible hand” theory is that it is only one hand – the one on the right.

    It relies on the one on the left being tightly superglued to workers’ arseholes to prevent it agitating for better wages and conditions.

    The superglue that does that is that labour laws and criminal laws that severely constrain the ability of employees to demand their fair share from the fruits of their labour.

    But for those laws, workers could just, at the extreme, forcibly detain an employer, appropriate the business, and share the profits equitably among themselves. After all, there are far more workers than there are employers.

    So your theory of the “invisible hand” is shit. But for the laws that constrain it, the left hands, by virtue of their numbers, would always be stronger than the right.

    Hence neo-liberal governments always legislate to constrain (superglue, arsehole and all) the left hand and enhance the freedom of the right hand to do as it chooses. That is exactly what the current Government in New Zealand is doing – empowering the right hand. And this is exemplified by PoAL, AFFCO and Oceania, flexing the right hand’s muscles and flourishing its fist, at the expense employees’ wages and conditions.

  19. Your meat worker rate $17-18 is a few years old (2006). At another company, SFF, I met an unskilled labourer whos only task was to sweep floors for $25 / hr (in-season). Skilled butchers were paid considerably more.

    Why are you comparing pay-rates to company profits? The companies require a return on their capital/investment – is this return excessive? You cant suggest just because profits exist that they should be lowered and wages bumped up without a proper analysis…

    The care workers are a different case, not good to lump them with POA and meatworks. NZ on the whole needs to value the service that they provide and invest more in it, and our old people.

  20. Adamsmith has a rather inappropriate moniker.

    The real Adam Smith reckoned you should pay your workers their fair share.
    (The Wealth of Nations). And tax rentiers and capital resource owners.

  21. Adam Smith 1922 has a point, I don’t think the Auckland Port boss is anti-worker, I don’t think he’s smart enough to be anti-worker. He is not made of the right stuff to run a business in a competitive marketplace. He’s a poor CEO. Thats very different to being anti-worker.

    Unfortunately, the issue appears to be and is reported as management versus workers, so the real issue never gets aired.

  22. Of course not, they never met a low wage worker that could be well exploited that they did not want to have. It was the well-paid ones that could be replaced by others on lower pay that were their problem.

  23. @Andrew Atkin 5:25 PM

    Blame it on the immigrants? Red herring, Andrew, this has nothing to do with immigration, apart perhaps from the fact that PoAL are manipulating non-union immigrant labour to attempt to undermine the Maritime Union and cut conditions for all waterfront workers.

    The real issue here is employers who are too lazy or to averse to making capital injections to make capital-based productivity gains so attempt the supposedly easy option of labour-based productivity gains that involve cutting workers’ conditions.

    Sadly, in the case of low paid employees like those Oceania employs in rest homes, they often succeed.

    But Gibson may have bitten off more than he can chew in taking on the Maritime Union. In doing so, he is taking on the International Transport Workers Federation, who have the strength of organised labour internationally to deem the Ports of Auckland a “port of convenience”.

    That would have immense adverse implications for PoAL, and for the Auckland Council that owns it.

    But because of the Orwellian-named “Council Controlled Organisation” arrangement imposed by the Government, under which Directors personally appointed in the last Parliamentary term by Rodney Hide rather than the Auckland Council have all the control, the Council cannot intervene to sack Gibson or the Board members of PoAL.

    Gibson is setting it up to drive PoAL into the ground so it is uneconomic for Auckland Council to continue to own it, in order that it is then privatised for some of his corporate mates to asset strip.

    Just like it happened in the ’80s and ’90s with Fay Richwhite & NZ Rail. Or are you too young to recall that?

  24. Cut back on immigration volumes and all this drama can be thrown away.

    As long as you have an over-supply of labour there will always be problems – unemployment and/or low wages.

  25. I’m not given to ad hominem attacks, but, as I have done so previously, I’m again going make a special exception for the Auckland Port’s CEO.

    I’d like to think he is a unique kind of stupid, but he probably isn’t. But really, the board should fire him.

    Lets just assume for a second he could wave his magic wand and have the most compliant workforce on the face of the earth. Would that make the Port of Auckland the best port in the country, let alone anywhere more global in scale? I think we all know the answer is “no”.

    Sack him now, while there is still some hope.

  26. In the case of the POA, the whole point of casualisation of the workforce, or the contracting out of the work is to increase volume of business (take work off the more efficent, deeper water harbour Port of Tauranga) and make the POA more profitable in any sale – but the current council is not inclined to sell.

    As success in this endeavour would require the Auckland council to commit more and more space to the POA, at a large opportunity cost to Auckland. Is a future council prepared to guarantee this growth in port area for a private operator and have they factored in this cost to any POA increase in workload?

    Given we import consumption volume and export from a finite resource base or niche products otherwise, what’s the economic advantage from infrastructure investment and wage level decline primarily to facilitate easier importing for a growing population (when we net borrow as a nation to fund this as it is now)?

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