By editors of The Spark
In late October 2011 over one hundred workers belonging to the New Zealand Meat Workers Union and employed at the ANZCO-owned CMP mutton processing plant in Marton, in the Manawatu area, were locked out by the company. The company was demanding that the workers take between 20%-30% losses of renumeration. The workers and their site organisers were not prepared to sign on to individual agreements and accept the cuts. Locking-out was a highly aggressive action from the company as lockouts are usually used as a retaliation to strike action. The workers hadn’t taken strike action but the company used locking-out as an ultimatum against those not prepared to accept the cuts. The lockout continued until December 23 when the workers voted to go back to work even though - we understand - they still faced some lesser conditions to those that existed prior to the lockout. The workers and site organiser involved are among the staunchest in the workers movement in the country, however ultimately the company was unable to be defeated.
Employer confidence in current environment
The lockout and the aggressive ultimatum-ist way in which it was carried out has given a clear indication of employer confidence within the current industrial relations and political environment. Speaking on National’s industrial relations policy ahead of its release for the 2011 election John Key said frankly and publicly, “The unions won’t like it” thereby announcing that unions will have to face more attacks as a follow up to National’s first-term attacks such as probabationary employment, sick leave changes, union access changes, and changes to reinstatement possibilities after unjustifiable dismissal is proven.
However, it is not just the government which has lead employers to this relatively secure position from which they can attack. Strategies used by trade unions over the last two decades have led to a weakening of union combatancy. Primarily this has occurred through the adoption of partnership and productivity strategies agreed between unions and employers. Whilst such strategies may - at certain periods - lead to some economistic gains, what they also do is reduce the organisational literacy of the movement.
The CTU has been central to promoting the partnership and productivity strategy in the 1990s and 2000s, however it did play a reasonable role in this dispute, particularly in the area of fundraising within which it helped to co-ordinate large amounts of donated money collected through unions, worksite collections, street collections, and so forth. An overall outcome of the dispute has been that the employers have seen that the union movement will pull together against particularly aggressive employers. This pulling-together also had an international character, with Unite in the UK making donations to the dispute and putting pressure on British retailers of ANZCO meat.
Freedom to take industrial action
While our members participated in picketing of McDonald’s stores (McDonald’s is a major purchaser of ANZCO meat), and in a few cases helped with organising such pickets, it must be said that this was not the type of activity which could bring a convincing victory for the CMP workers. The CMP plant was not within the McDonalds supply chain and therefore the pickets largely had a symbolic role to raise awareness about the dispute.
Combined industrial action is what will be needed in future struggles to support workers against employer offensives like this one. Other meat workers from around the Manawatu were consistently present, in a tightly organised way, at the CMP picket. It is this sort of solidarity which the workers movement needs to translate into solidarity industrial actions against connected companies in such disputes. The Labour Party, back in 2000, legislated for harsher sanctions against workers who engage in sympathy actions. Solidarity striking must be put back on the agenda in New Zealand’s unions.