This article, by Workers Party member Joel Cosgrove, originally appeared in Green Left Weekly.
A number of high-profile industrial struggles are unfolding in New Zealand.
About 1500 aged care workers, members of the Service and Food Workers Union, are taking part in rolling strikes against a 1% pay rise offer. About 750 meat workers have been locked out by their employer AFFCO and about 1250 workers are involved in rolling stoppages in solidarity. Striking Auckland waterside workers are also into their fourth week on the picket line.
What links all these struggles are pay and conditions ― especially the fight against casualisation.
The number of work stoppages dropped to less than 30 in 2010, so the appearance of a cluster of industrial disputes is an important sign of the times.
The current struggles are defensive actions, either directly started by employers (such as with the meat workers) or in response to stonewalling or undermining (aged care and waterfront workers).
Aged care workers are paid on average NZ$13.61 (A$10.63), $0.11 above the legal minimum wage. The industry is rife with unsafe and manipulative conditions. Carers’ concern for their residents is often used as a way to promote strike-breaking.
The cost for a resident can often rise above $1000 a week for basic care, on top of the subsidies that the companies already receive from the government.
In 2007, Spotless (a British multinational corporation) received a subsidy from the government to bolster wages. It was kept by the company and not passed on, until a strike/lockout campaign led to it grudgingly handing it over to the workers.
The AFFCO lockout is the latest in a string of attacks on conditions in the industry. Last year, more than 100 workers were locked out of the ANZCO/CMP Rangitikei meat works plant. The bosses’ demanded a 20% pay cut and loss of conditions related to guaranteed hours.
Eventually, the workers went back to work, accepting a lesser pay cut and keeping most of their conditions.
The meat processing industry is a cut-throat business. AFFCO seems to be following ANZCO in seeking to force its workers to accept fully casualised and unprotected employment. AFFCO has threatened to lock out any worker who takes part in any strike action in support of those already locked out.
The Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) has a long and proud history of struggle, solidarity and internationalism. The back story and machinations behind the latest waterfront redundancies and strike are complicated and murky.
The dispute comes out of the process of creating the Auckland Supercity, a merging of the seven local councils and the regional council into one entity.
Ports of Auckland, saved from privatisation in the early 1990s, has been turned into an autonomous corporate structure by the current National Party government. The POA board was stacked with right-wing business figures to push a privatisation and anti-worker agenda.
Midway through last year, POA began to outsource work on the port, which MUNZ resisted. Workers were made redundant and forced to apply for jobs in a joint-venture company 90% owned by POA itself.
Collective negotiations became bogged down. POA demanded the union accept the casualisation and atomisation of the workforce on the ports. The refusal by MUNZ to accept this has led to over 300 workers on the waterfront being made redundant.
Leaked documents from POA showed it planned to force MUNZ to strike, budgeting $9 million in redundancy payouts and $9 million to run the anti-union campaign. The Labour Party-aligned city council has placed its support behind the POA board.
Workers in Australia and the United States have donated money to the MUNZ strike fund, or refused to unload ships that were loaded by scab labour. There was a march of 5000 supporters rallied in Auckland in solidarity with the waterside workers.
Public service workers, fire-fighters and nurses unions have come out in solidarity with the struggles.
In all three struggles, little or no attempt has been made to shut down the operations of the business involved. The focus has been on waging the struggle through media or legal channels.
MUNZ is now in the employment court, hoping it is deemed illegal for POA to make union members redundant while collective negotiations are ongoing.
Yet the points of production are not being shut down. Scabs are being let into the meatworks and MUNZ leaders seem to be relying on international pressure stopping many ships from loading and unloading cargo.
In an opinion piece on his blog titled “Only People Power Can Save Our Ports”, writer Chris Trotter points to the mass picket of Number Five Webb Dock in Melbourne in 1998 as playing a big role in resolving the nationwide Patrick’s dispute that year.
He says if the ports are not shut down, the workers will be trapped on the employers’ territory of the courts system as scab labour is settled in and workers lose the ability to assert their most powerful weapon ― their collective strength.