Open Country Cheese workers took heroic stand

The Spark November 2009
Jared Phillips

The lockout of Talleys-owned Open Country Cheese workers came to an end in late October 2009 after a legal and industrial struggle waged by the Dairy Workers Union (DWU) and its members.

 The Open Country Cheese site is a self-contained dairy factory in Waharoa, a few minutes drive north of Matamata in the Waikato. The lock-out came after strike notification by the DWU. In other words, the employer issued the lock-out notice before the strike had officially begun, and marched workers off the site in mid-late September.

 The Dairy Workers Union has previously been characterised by a reluctance to take industrial actions or to engage in media releases against individual employers. This is because of a number of factors such as the skilled and semi-skilled nature of workers under its coverage, and broad partnerships with some employers. In fact, the union had not engaged in major strike activity for over 20 years. However, no other path except industrial action combined with gaining solidarity from the public was available to make any improvements for the employees at Open Country Cheese.

 From the beginning of the unionisation drive in Open Country Cheese, the employer put up as many barriers to unionisation as possible. Some of the workers in the plant were previously members of the Dairy Workers Union at other jobs and acted initially as a kind of organising cell. When they were ready to go beyond this the DWU was blocked from formal access to the site. This had to be dealt with legally in a case that was successfully taken to the Employment Relations Authority.

 When the bargaining process commenced the company ruled-out pay claims and the negotiations were refocused on secure hours of work and work scheduling, as well as redundancy processes. Further, the company extended itself with anti-worker practices by setting up what has been referred to as a ‘bogus employment agency’ to further casualise workers and exclude them from the collective bargaining process. The employer still made no significant offer through mediation on September 9. These were the factors which determined that the union had to take industrial action.

 The lock-out and use of scab labour was challenged in the Employment Relations Authority. This was seen by the wider union movement to be an important case because its result would give signals to other employers as to how far they could test employment legislation. The lock-out itself was ruled illegal on the basis that the company was not engaging properly in the bargaining process. Decision was reserved on the use of scab labour due to ownership structures and considerations around the nature of the employment relationship between the company and the scabs. Effectively the ruling changed the situation so that the locked-out workers received some level of pay while scab labour kept them out of working their jobs.

 The company had used extremely dishonest tactics such as accusing the workers, who practiced discipline, of sabotaging the plant. A union delegate at the plant was sacked on the basis of false allegations that he broke the window of a company work van that is said to have been transporting scabs. Throughout the dispute the company’s activities were met with solidarity from other workers, unions, and the community.

The dispute was ended in mediation on Wednesday October 24. In terms of the direct result for these workers the outcome is mixed but has strong positives. Acting cynically again, the company announced restructuring during the dispute. Some workers took redundancy in confidential settlements. On the positive side there is now a collective agreement in place, which the union can build on in the future. 

Aside from the direct results for the workers, there are important implications for the wider dairy sector and for the rest of the working class. Talley’s has been shown that if it wishes to extend its anti-union behaviour with its encroachments into the dairy industry it will be met with resistance. The rest of the employing class has been shown that a small number of workers (approximately 35 were involved) can and will stand up to anti-union activities and win the right to collective representation. Their resistance took place at a very important time, showing other workers that it’s possible to engage the boss in smaller set-piece battles. The workers - and very importantly, the families who had sacrificed - successfully made a heroic stand against the odds.

2 Responses to Open Country Cheese workers took heroic stand

  1. Tiger Mountain says:

    Good coverage of a difficult situation for the workers and the NZDWU.
    It should be remembered that this dispute did not quite get to the stage of a consumer boycott and wider public campaign about the anti worker nature of Talleys, so there was still some gas in the tank. Scabs are always difficult to contend with once they get on site, especially if they are ideologically aligned with dairy farmers, or are farmers!.

  2. Jared Phillips says:

    Hi, good points…

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