The Extraordinary Strength Of Ordinary Men & Women: Participants in the Solidarity March to Teal Park on Saturday 10th March draw an explicit parallel with the workers who struggled in the great Waterfront Lockout of 1951 and the workers battling to save their jobs in 2012.
IT WAS MIDNIGHT, a week ago, when Matt McCarten, Wayne Hope and I pulled up at the MUNZ picket. There were only half-a-dozen blokes on the night-shift, but they made us welcome. There were fried sausages and onions on the barbecue, thick slabs of buttered bread, and big mugs of steaming tea all round. As cars roared past the picketers’ tent, horns blaring, we stood there in Teal Park discussing the week’s dramatic turn of events.
Overwhelmingly, the reaction of these bluff, good-humoured New Zealanders was one of sheer bafflement. They simply couldn’t get their heads around the stone-cold mendacity of their employers. A judge of the Employment Court had brokered a deal. MUNZ had voted to call off the strike. The men were eager to return to work. And then the word came through that POAL had locked them out.
Huddled there in the streetlights’ sodium glare, a soft breeze blowing in off the Waitemata, our companions stared disconsolately into their mugs.
“So much for good-faith bargaining”, I said.
The men glanced up at me, nodded grimly, sipped their tea.
A WEEK LATER, and much has changed – POAL’s position especially. The Lockout notice has been lifted. The men will all be back at work by 6 April (with two weeks’ pay in their pockets) and the union will be back at the bargaining-table, ready and willing to sign up a new Collective Employment Agreement with the port company.
It’s not a victory – not yet. But it’s damn close.
HOW DID THEY DO IT? Pitted against some of the hardest men in the business (one of whom, POAL Director and former trade unionist, Rob Campbell, quit in disgust at his colleagues’ pusillanimity) the Maritime Union has secured a highly favourable armistice. How had the people at POAL misjudged the balance of forces in this dispute so comprehensively?
I suspect POAL’s biggest mistake was to assume that it was picking a fight with MUNZ. The waterfront union was a known quantity – as was its leader, Garry Parsloe. POAL thought it would be dealing with “old school” trade unionists: unreconstructed working-class men who would respond to employer bullying by shoving it right back at them x 10. Determined to be provocative, the POAL management were confident MUNZ’s reaction would be predictably hard-core, and that, pretty soon, the “wharfies” would be on the losing side of the PR war.
But POAL wasn’t up against MUNZ alone. Early on in the dispute, the Maritime Union had the wisdom and foresight to call upon the Council of Trade Unions for assistance. That assistance came in the person of the CTU President, Helen Kelly, and her special assistant for the duration of the dispute, the former Labour MP, Carol Beaumont. Between them, these two women transformed the dispute into a battle POAL was ill-prepared to fight, and could not win.
Realising that an old-fashioned, very masculine, display of muscle-flexing and fisty-cuffs at the port gates would play into every negative public stereotype of militant unionism, Kelly and Beaumont set about constructing a whole new narrative – one the average Aucklander could respond to with genuine empathy. Rather than portray MUNZ as the bare-chested, fist-clenching heroes of Soviet iconography, the CTU team cast them in a much more sympathetic – and accurate – role: that of husbands and fathers. These were workers with families: people with mortgages to pay and fridges to fill – just like you and me.
Ninety-thousand post-cards showing a MUNZ member holding a toddler in his arms, surrounded by his wife and the rest of his five children were printed and distributed across Auckland. “You don’t know us” read the opening sentence on the reverse side of the card, “but we work for you.” The family theme was reiterated in a video put together free-of-charge for MUNZ and uploaded on to YouTube. This was propaganda of a sort, and at a level of sophistication, that POAL hadn’t expected.
And it worked. The CTU had commissioned some quiet polling. It revealed that the public was willing to hear the union’s case. POAL had expected Aucklanders to be overwhelmingly hostile to MUNZ, but they were wrong. A very substantial minority, if not an outright majority, of Auckland citizens were ready to include MUNZ and its members in what the world-wide “Occupy” movement called “The 99 Percent”. The CTU, against all the odds, had transformed the union from “Them”, and made them one of “Us”.
AND THAT WAS THE BALL-GAME, really. I have no doubt that at a very early stage in POAL’s planning to de-unionise the Auckland waterfront, they sought – and were given – the Government’s quiet assurance that when push came to shove it would have the company’s back. (If they didn’t gain such an assurance, then they were fools.) But the Government’s pollsters could hardly help noticing the same trends as the pollsters commissioned by the CTU. This was no repeat of the “Hobbit” dispute. The Government would not be able to intervene on the employers’ side with impunity – as it did on behalf of Sir Peter Jackson and Warner Bros.
Other industrial disputes: the lockout of AFFCO’s meatworkers; the refusal of the Oceania Group to grant a 3 percent wage increase to aged-care workers earning just $13.62 per hour; had merged with the Ports of Auckland dispute in the public mind. These events were not perceived in terms of union militancy, but as evidence of rapacious, uncaring and militant employers. There were no points to be scored here for Mr Key’s government. Better to sit this one out.
I suspect that at some point over the past few weeks the Board and management of POAL glanced over their shoulders, expecting to see their Government ally close behind, and discovered, to their horror, that they were on their own.
That isolation became all-important as the union-activated legal machinery at the Employment Court began to hum. Far from being “bullet-proof”, POAL’s legal position was looking increasingly vulnerable. They were practically certain to be injuncted by the Court – a situation which could last for months. Even worse, when it finally came before an Employment Court judge, it seemed pretty clear that MUNZ was going to win its case.
FINALLY, there was the solidarity march. Though POAL supporters sneered that “only” 5,000 people participated – out of an Auckland population of 1.5 million – what really mattered was who those people were. All three parties of the Left, two of them, Labour and Mana, represented by their leaders, David Shearer and Hone Harawira, were present. About a third of the Auckland City Council marched alongside them. They were joined by a host of New Zealand unions, and, more significantly, by representatives of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union from the West Coast of the USA and the Maritime Union of Australia, both bearing very real promises of solidaristic action and financial support.
This was a march which nearly every active left-winger in Auckland (and from further afield) made a point of joining. Within its ranks were all the political ingredients for a much bigger movement. If POAL persisted in its folly, massive resistance was guaranteed.
I think it was my friend, Wayne Hope who summed it up best. Speaking about the Ports of Auckland dispute on Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury’s Citizen A show on Triangle TV on Thursday night, Wayne astutely observed that:
“If you are a powerful businessman and you’re really arrogant and you think you know it all – you don’t really think about democracy do you? So all the things we’ve been talking about … what they signify is that the volatility of democracy is beyond their purview.”
IT’S WHAT THE PEARSONS and Gibsons of this world have never understood, and what the Campbells long ago forgot: the extraordinary strength of ordinary men and women. So long as there are people like the blokes who took last Friday’s night shift in Teal Park; workers who treasure the liberty to stand together in unity, then the volatility of democracy will endure. Though the victory of Good can never be guaranteed, it is comforting to know that the triumph of Evil is equally uncertain.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.