The livelihoods of thousands of working class people in New Zealand are being attacked by Talleys Group Ltd, a New Zealand-based private company which owns AFFCO meat-processing plants and has locked out freezing workers throughout the North Island.
As one of the largest meat operations in New Zealand, Talleys operates nine AFFCO freezing works plants. For decades AFFCO has been a source of employment in provincial areas and the workforce is often generational. Through generations of genuine rank-and-file unionism, freezing workers in AFFCO as well as other plants owned by other meat processing companies were able to achieve relatively strong wages and conditions by comparison to other industries.
On Febraury 29 the company locked out of over 700 workers which led to the beginning of picketing on March 2 at the Moerewa (in Northland), Wiri (in South Auckland), Horotiu (in North Waikato), Rangiuru (near Te Puke), Hawkes Bay (at Napier), and Manawatu (at Fielding), and Wairoa (in Northern Hawkes Bay) plants. On March 2 the union correctly called all members who were not locked-out into strike action. In turn the company then began locking-out strikers who were not covered by the original lockout notices, for example, a further 200 more workers were locked-out at Rangiuru. The union then called further 24-hour and 48-hour strikes including those which started on March 6, March 12, and March 22. Daily pickets are taking place at some plants.
Industry-wide attack in meat processing
The lockout is another vicious employer action in the meat industry which follows on from the 7-week lockout of approximately 100 workers at the CMP plant in the Manawatu, which is owned by ANZCO. Now the AFFCO lockouts are impacting on approximately 1000 workers so far.
These lockouts and strikes are not the result of normal negotiation breakdowns. Locking-out as a response to strike action has become a reasonably common practice of employers across various industries, even in the service sector. However ANZCO and Talleys-AFFCO have used locking-out as the primary tactic, or first step after the breakdown of negotiations, as an ultimatum to attempt to get workers to agree to clawed-back conditions. The bosses’ position is that workers will be locked out until submitting to lowered conditions.
It’s correct to conclude that this is an industry-wide struggle in which meat industry bosses – while perhaps not openly or consciously collaborating - have consciously decided to attempt to break union power. This is apparent in Talleys media statements where they have stated that it is about ‘who manages the workplace’.
Why more flexibility?
Talleys purchased the AFFCO plants last year and is demanding more flexibility in the workplace. The company’s demand for greater flexibility is connected to its requirement for the right to manage. Companies like Talleys want the right to discard union contract norms that provide work security and security of hours to employees. Greater flexibility is then used to increase labour efficiencies and therefore squeeze more profits out of the workforce.
Many AFFCO plants are now antiquated. Instead of resolving efficiency problems through investing in plant and machinery to create state of the art workplaces, New Zealand capitalists have tended to focus on making the workforce leaner, making it work harder and faster.
Additionally, a more general point is that employers seek to increase profit through labour intensification because it creates profit in a different way than investment in plant and machinery. Capital invested in in labour is variable capital, meaning the employer can vary the rate of exploitation through labour intensification. Investment in plant and machinery is constant capital, it is constant rather than variable capital because it can only create a certain amount of profit relative to the actual value or the machinery. The profits derived from constant capital cannot be varied through intensification as is the case with profits derived from labour intensification.
The dispute in context: The neo-liberalisation of work
As is also occurring at the Ports of Auckland Limited with employer attacks against the wharfies (stevedores) this lockout is fundamentally about trying to reduce the conditions and power of workers in traditional union jobs down to the flexibilised conditions and low power of the broader workforce in New Zealand, but the workers’ unions are standing in the way.
In relation to the Auckland port dispute TV One News (January 31) reported that “Businesses say it’s a battle between old and new work practices” and Kim Campbell of the Employers and Manufacturers Association said, ”I think it’s do or die personally, and that really is a serious matter…”. The Auckland ports director told TV3 News that “Our singular focus is on addressing old-fashioned workplace practices that are a handbrake on flexibility and productivity.”
Essentially employers are now going after core industrial workers in an attempt to make those workers subject to the neo-liberal workplace conditions of job insecurity, work insecurity (less guaranteed hours of work), income insecurity, individualisation of bonus’s and benefits and other elements of the neo-liberal work environment. When other parts of the workforce are unorganised and working in these conditions then the core workforce is more vulnerable to the types of attacks that are happening now.
Solidarity with the meat workers benefits all workers
Backward elements of the working class deride workers in the meat industry, ports, etc, because through pure backwardness they think it’s somehow ‘fairer’ if core workers are reduced to the same low pay and poor conditions of work. Such an attitude, whilst obviously discompassionate, is also purely incorrect and doesn’t comprehend that working people are oppressed as an entire class by the entire capitalist class.
This means that there is no general wage outlay available for working people from which meat workers and port workers take a bigger share than other workers. Oppositely, the truth is that through their struggles, including their defensive struggles like those being fought at the moment, these better-organised sections of the working class act to increase or defend the wage rates and conditions of the entire working class. If the employers were to make gains against these core workers it is to the detriment of already-vulnerable workers as their own bosses get a green light to further erode their rights. This is why strong workers movements operate on the ‘touch one, touch all’ principle.
However, that fact is that there is a tremendous amount of solidarity with workers undergoing these attacks, with a number of recent surveys showing that more of the public support than oppose the workers.
New Zealand companies - no better for workers than foreign ones
There is a myth peddled by social democrats and sections of the union movement that New Zealand employers are more desirable than foreign ones. This myth masks the fact that antagonist social differences are between classes and not between nations or nationalities. In this case, like in many industrial disputes, the antagonism is between a New Zealand capitalist company and those who work for it.
Talleys is renowned for anti-union activity. For example it breached the limitations contained in New Zealand’s employment law on the use of replacement labour during the Open Country Cheese dispute in 2011. In New Zealand scab labour can only be sourced from employees already employed by the company that is party to a dispute. On appeal the Dairy Workers Union won their case against Talleys’ use of illegal scab labour but Talleys then appealed to the Supreme Court which wouldn’t hear Talleys’ appeal.
In July 2011 when the National Business Review released its annual New Zealand Rich List, it reported that the Talleys family had increased its wealth by $10 million over the previous year, which was attributed to its 100% take-over of AFFCO. The majority of New Zealand employers are anti-union and should be given no credit or thanks, or receive better expectations from working people for being ‘Kiwi-owned’.
The employer’s offensive is likely to continue and probably worsen in the coming period. The government has indicated that there won’t be any reprieve in its reduction of union rights. Working people will lose if we just rely on core workers to carry the burden by themselves. As well as supporting the workers who are fighting back against direct attacks we argue for the need to intensify union action across the board and for a strategy to re-organise the entire working class against any and all employers which seek to drive down conditions.