Friday 13 January 2012

The Auckland Ports Dispute: An Injury To All

Together We Stand: If the New Zealand Left fails to launch a counter-offensive against the, to date, highly successful campaign by the Right to break the Maritime Union and set the scene for the privatisation of the Ports of Auckland, then it will sustain a significant, perhaps historic, strategic defeat. There is much more at stake on the Auckland wharves than the wages and conditions of 300 waterside workers.

THE LOOMING CONFRONTATION on Auckland’s wharves will be a test for the whole of the New Zealand Left. If the clear pattern of escalation by the Ports of Auckland Ltd’s (POAL) Board of Directors is not answered by a broad counter-mobilisation from the Left, then not only POAL, but the entire New Zealand Right, will score a significant – perhaps historic – victory. As they were in 1913 and 1951, Auckland’s wharves have once again become the crucible of class conflict in New Zealand.

It is hardly a coincidence that this dispute flared within days of National’s election victory. Hard-liners in the Auckland business community know that if POAL can take down the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ), one of the very few New Zealand trade unions with sufficient strength to protect the living standards and working conditions of its members, then Prime Minister Key and his Labour Minister, Kate Wilkinson, will feel free to introduce a further round of swingeing workplace “reforms”.

And it is not simply at the level of central government that a management victory on the Auckland wharves would free the hands of the Right. If the highly popular, left-leaning Mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, can be manoeuvred into a position where he is seen to be acting against the interests of working people, then there is every possibility that his electoral base in the south of the city will desert him in next year’s local government elections. This would open the way for a right-wing council and mayor to take power on a programme of privatising the city’s assets – including POAL.

Clearly, there is a lot more at stake on the Auckland wharves than the wages and conditions of MUNZ’s members. The defeat of MUNZ in Auckland will open the way for a further and rapid erosion of trade union rights across the rest of New Zealand, as well as providing additional fuel for the Right’s campaign to privatise what remains of New Zealand’s public estate.

What, then, should the Left be doing?

There is already a measure of co-operation between MUNZ and the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU). Together these bodies have released a fact-sheet on the dispute which puts paid to most of POAL’s half-truths and misrepresentations of the union’s position. But much more than this needs to done. MUNZ should consider seriously “handing over” the dispute to the CTU in the way unions enmeshed in serious disputes in the 1960s and 70s “handed them over” to the National Executive of the old Federation of Labour.

By involving all of New Zealand’s trade unions in the dispute’s resolution, MUNZ would be saying to the POAL management: “This fight is now a national issue.” It would empower the CTU President, Helen Kelly, to speak out nationally on the issues at stake and, as workers’ awareness grew, the CTU’s affiliates could be advised to prepare for large-scale solidarity actions in support of MUNZ’s members.

Because New Zealand’s draconian employment laws outlaw sympathy and protest strikes the CTU’s response (at least initially) would have to be confined to organising demonstrations and raising funds to support striking workers’ families. What the CTU could also do, however, if POAL refuses to negotiate with MUNZ in good faith, is call upon young unemployed workers and students to take a leaf out of California’s “Occupy Oakland” play-book and prepare to occupy the wharves.

Makes more sense than sitting in a pup-tent in Auckland’s Aotea Square.

The CTU and the Occupy Movement should not, however, be expected to fight POAL alone. Mayor Brown, rather than allow himself to be alienated from his South Auckland base, should announce immediately his intention of organising a series of rallies throughout Auckland’s working-class suburbs where he will declare his support for trade union rights, pledge to keep the Ports of Auckland in public hands and ask for Aucklanders’ support in dismissing the POAL Board of Directors should a settlement of the dispute not be effected quickly.

Nor should the Leader of the Opposition, David Shearer, be allowed to repeat the error of his predecessor, Walter Nash, by attempting to keep the Labour Party neutral in this dispute. Here, before him, lies his “Orewa moment”: a chance to demonstrate to Labour’s electoral base that the Left is far from vanquished.

That “an injury to one” remains “an injury to all”.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 December 2012.


Joe Carolan said...

Looks like Chris has been reading-


jh said...

As usual it's all about the wharfies: the wharfies are leading the charge for the tea ladies and when their pay rates go through the roof the tea ladies will get a 10c wage increase. This has all been played out before and isn't the answer. Union power varies between industry and self-interest sees each union putting it's own members first.

We could perhaps learn from the Japanese whose higher paid are (I think) not paid on the same scale as those in the western countries because they see the nation as a family. We should also look after things such as house prices, while maintaining (what is left) of our lifestyle.
Being an eternally high income country may not be viable long term but we should aim for a soft landing where living is cheap and our local environment is livable for everyone.

Unknown said...

Labour must get into the dispute boots and all! Labour must indicate clearly to working people, those who are not allowed to work, and oldtimers like my self who couldn't work in the end and had to wait until we were 65 to get some medicre respect from around the place.

Labour must lead us all out of the sewers of economic reform, to reclaim our place as a country of social reformers respected around the world for looking after all our people - from the cradle to the grave.

And when labour has organised its leadership - it has to start leading NZ; creating positive alternative to the Fascists in Blue who want to GIVE our country away to the global fascists in Wall Street, Monsanto's boardroom and elsewhere.

We should take to the streets in a year or too and demand that our country is returned to us and not SOLD OFF to the Chinese and others.

But as we go along, consider the predictions for 21-12-2012 - a Change of Times - but for whom?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Love to see Labour go in boots and all, but given their track record in the last 30 years I remain cynical. Particularly as the Mayor has been quoted saying that the union should be more flexible. He is obviously not trying to appeal to his South Auckland base there :-).

Michael Wood said...

Well said Chris. It is a calculated and pre-meditated attack, as leaked documents from Ports management show -

The response needs to be equally strategic and co-ordinated. If a highly organised group like the wharfies cannot retain the right to direct employment then other groups of workers should be very afraid.

Scouser said...

I struggle to draw this long bow of a workplace dispute to be a major battle between forces of the left and right ... cue Lord of the Rings scenes from The Return of the King.

I agree that we are seeing an enormous amount of blogosphere interest and lots of spleen venting by the various factions ... but really?

If POA management are up to joining in to a battle then the numbers and their belief in the likely success of such a battle must seem sound to them. I've worked in corporates - it's all about the numbers and chances of success. They don't give a toss about unions outside of how it affects them in their company in their role.

This might be a singularly important dispute because it might reflect most visibly the reduced power of unions but that's as far as I would admit. These types of events generally reflect what is occurring rather than drive direction.

Personally, I think this is a fight that is the LEAST likely to assist the unions\left. The public perception is that these guys are damn well remunerated and the unions are likely to come across as greedy as opposed to representing workers with poor negotiating power, which is what they should fundamentally be. The effects of their strike actions on others don't lend to a great sympathy vote either.

du lich trong nuoc said...

We should take to the streets in a year or too and demand that our country is returned to us and not SOLD OFF to the Chinese and others,this is my web du lich da lat

Cactus Kate said...

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of yesterdays men,
It is the music of the people,
Who would have us all live in caves again.

Where is David Shearer? That's right. In a Bach without power. On holiday.

Can't help thinking Cunners would have already been down there with his megaphone and truck....

Mark Wilson said...

I do so hope that Brown and the Labour Party take your advice - the result for the left will be exactly what happened in 1913 and 1951 - a massive electoral rout in the 2013 local body and 2014 general elections.
The last 50 years have been a massive defeat for unionism around the world, with nowhere more so that here. And this sort of dispute has been the catalyst for that defeat.
Over paid, unskilled and uneducated workers with contempt for the reality of the world they operate in organising their own demise.
How bad does the defeat have to get before the left accepts that their union strategy is a bigger failure than General Custers was?????????
No one can accuse the left of learning from history.

Loz said...

The greatest economic catastrophe in the history of the planet continues to unfold; all due to the self-interest ideology of the New Right yet these same people lambast working New Zealanders as being greedy and self-interested. Amazing.

"Vessel Rate" is the fashionable metric currently being used to measure port efficiency and is defined as the number of containers lifted on and off a vessel in an hour of labour operations. The 2010 averages have the three most efficient Australasian ports as:

Tauranga = 54.6 containers / labour hour
Otago = 52.1 containers / labour hour
Auckland = 50.2 containers / labour hour

The Vessel Rate is altered by bottlenecks like the turnaround time of trucks, space available on wharfs, equipment failures and staff availability. As the size of ships has been increasing, peak demands on infrastructure have increased too. The dedicated container wharf length in Auckland is about 36% greater than that of Tauranga yet the port handles about 55% more freight. The measurements are subjective statistics yet by all measures Auckland ports are extremely efficient.

Auckland Regional Holdings produced a discussion document into the developing crisis of New Zealand ports in 2009. Five companies carry 77% of all container freight for New Zealand and 63% of that freight will move through Auckland or Tauranga. It stated, “Shipping lines drive down port charges in New Zealand by playing one port off against the other on the basis of price”. Container handling in New Zealand is now 35% cheaper than in Australia while the same shipping firms are demanding still cheaper services and greater port infrastructure development.

Due to intense competition, return on investment in ports dropped to 5.1% in 2008 with expectations it will continue to drop. From 1997 to 2009 ports invested 1.1 billion dollars of public money in infrastructure while shipping companies seeking even greater public investment to aid in reducing corporate costs. Adding to this impossible set of equations Auckland Council Investments Ltd set for the Ports of Auckland a target of a 6.4% increase in revenue for next year and even faster turnarounds.

Port of Tauranga Chief Executive (John Parker) as early as 2006 stated It was "important that Auckland and Tauranga - the two largest container ports in the country - stopped competing and merged... Otherwise we will never achieve port efficiency in New Zealand."1.
Auckland Regional Holdings was clearer in 2009 stating: “The sector is engaging in destructive interregional competition that is detrimental to New Zealand’s long-term productivity and competitiveness, and could be considered an instance of “market failure”. For the good of the country, it is clear that the port sector needs to change and focus on the real threat – not from each other – but from outside.” 2

The current move to slash employment costs by making staff on-call, round the clock casual workers without compensation for lifestyle or job insecurity is another step toward creating a third world nation and further evidence that the free market ideology continues to impoverish this country.

Galeandra said...

At least the debate has ignited with some 'real' information now disseminated.
Whether this is an issue likely to win broad support for civil disobedience including picket lines and trespass is doubtful, in my mind. Average NZ is too well indoctrinated and would most likely keep its head down.
On a visceral level, I say go for it. The 'reforms' began with the 'bloated' public service but the port workers and the bank staff aren't too far behind, and ultimately we're all in their sights.

Brendan McNeill said...

One should only engage in battles when you have a strategic advantage, otherwise, you keep your powder dry and wait for another opportunity. When confrontation cannot be avoided, and you are in a weak position, you negotiate.

The POA wharfies have taken on a fight they cannot win.

They have no strategic advantage. There is zero public sympathy, (aside from the hard left class war warriors), for people who earn over $90K per annum striking over an employment dispute, the cause of which the public cannot be bothered to understand.

It's a PR disaster, and counter productive for the union movement. Personally I don't mind that at all, but it does amuse me to see the hard left rally behind this union when the outcome is a forgone conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Trotter and "aged comrades or consorts" - get off your backside and to the waterfront, I suggest. This is not meant to be rude, it is meant to be direct and resolute. I also strongly tell the remaining Labour MPs from the Auckland and surrounding regions to get off their bums and take a clear stand here. It is absolutely appalling that no Labourite of substance takes a stand here. I am by no means saying that the MUNZ should get it all their way, but what POA management and Gibson present us is the challenge of life or death to freedom of association, freedom of negotiation, freedom of workers in NZ Aotearoa to stand up for their rights and liberties. I dread the day when Labour will betray the ordinary workers. Labour ahs already betrayed the working poor and beneficiaries during their last reign, and this MUST STOP! If Labour wants to go to oblivion, do a silent Shearer and dodge all challenges. Maybe go into coalition with Key and the right wing then. I challenge you to take a bloody clear stand on this one. H.C.

Richard said...

Chris - Yes! Well said Chris. This concerns all workers, all unions, and indeed also the Mayor and others.


jh said...

The "progressives" barking up wrong tree.

"90% of millionaires get there by investing in real-estate"

The top 1% control 35% of the wealth (U.S) etc...

Land taxes plus competition at all levels and open government could be the most viable way to achieve social justice.

Madison said...

I don't see this as a return to 1951, the unions don't have that power left anyway. It's a bit of a shame that the merger of POA and POT was scuttled by those on the left because it would have weakened the Union merging a casual workforce with a unionised one. Now it's become a weakness that they're still at competition.

Having seen the wharfies in my last two cities rattle off their schedules for weeks in advance I don't see the "calling out of bed in the middle of the night" problem and I think there's an amazing amount of BS shown by both sides here. If the stevedores don't earn those salaries where are the Union sheets to prove it? I notice they have no problem releasing that info when it will easily win them public sympathy (TEAL dispute, Telecom/Visionstream, PPTA) but MUNZ keeping the books closed seems a bit odd this time when it's so nasty. If the Stevedores are working so few hours why does the port only release random statements instead of actual time and work logs?

As for a massive roll-over in local body election? My local body is heavily left centered and the town is regularly up in arms over massively wasted money on fancy dinners, wining and dining visitors and funnelling charity donations to counsellors own charities and trusts. Any rollover here would be welcome but a loss on the left.

Anybody got real substantiated facts from either side?

KjT said...

I wonder if the RWNJ’s on here can do division..

Auckland TEU 2011 year 894 383. Labour costs 51.9 million.

Tauranga TEU 2011 year. 590 506. Labour costs 59.1 million.

Tauranga has more break bulk cargo so they are not exactly equivalent.

But, simple division shows that the contractor model is more expensive per TEU..
Labour is paid less in Tauranga, but it looks like the difference is more than made up for by contractors overheads and profits.

Numbers from the ports websites.

Auckland Labour is CHEAPER per TEU (20 ft equivalent container) than Tauranga, already.

Tauranga wharfies are watching Auckland with trepidation. They know that their, already lower, wages will be reduced still further if Auckland drops their costs.

Mearsk are being allowed to ratchet down port charges in all NZ ports while ports keep making, duplicated, capital investments to attract them. While the oligopoly of overseas shipping lines charges double the freight from NZ than they do from Sydney.

This is totally against the best interests of the country as a whole. And a direct result of fake competition, due to Neo-Liberal religious faith, between ports

Frank said...

"The public perception is that these guys are damn well remunerated and the unions are likely to come across as greedy as opposed to representing workers with poor negotiating power, which is what they should fundamentally be. The effects of their strike actions on others don't lend to a great sympathy vote either. " - Scouser

A couple of points, Scouser...

1. So what if Maritime Union workers are "well remunerated" - though I think $60,000 pa, base pay, is not all that extraordinary. Especially when compared to the PoA Director's fees and CEO's $750,000 salary.

And didn't John Key pledge, four years ago, to raise wages in this country???

Oh yes, I believe he did!

“We will be unrelenting in our quest to lift our economic growth rate and raise wage rates.” – John Key, 29 January 2008 (

2. Unions cannot be "representing workers with poor negotiating power" if they are powerless. Anyone with two inter-connected neuronbs can figure that out in a short period of time.

If a Union as strong as the Maritime Union is smashed - what possible power can lesser Unions wield on behalf of their membership?!?!

Make no mistake, the current struggle on the Ports of Auckland (I no longer refer to it as a mere "dispute") is about de-unionising the workforce, and casualising it.

In effect, everything that John Key pledged in January 2008 is being countered by management at PoA.

The results will be a further reduction in general wages and salaries in this country, except for a lucky few, and politicians. (Funny that.)

Which will mean that the flood of migrants to Australia will double, or treble, over the coming years.

I must admit; as much as I love my country of birth - it is not the same country I grew up in. Instead, I see a growing disparity beween the wealthy and the poor; growing poverty; disease; prison population; and a general sense of hopelessness.

After all, John Key's government wasn't re-elected because people voted for National. Key's government won re-election because one million-plus voters couldn't be bothered to vote.

That's not a mandate. That's prelude to an oncoming storm of apathy, dislocation, and anger.

Anonymous said...

God, whay a lot of trotski-ite blowhard crap. Time to move out of the leftie kindergarten trottie.

Victor said...


I'm not without sympathy for the wharfies. But a base pay of $60,000 pa is far from negligible from the perspective of many, perhaps most, people in this country.

I'm still trying to work out whether there is a genuine national interest at stake here or merely a perfectly reasonable but nevertheless sectional interest.

Unfortunately, this thread has not, thus far, enlightened me.

thor42 said...

The longer this strike goes on, the better it is for the Nats.
When the 2014 election comes around, the voters will remember this strike (and any others). The last thing they will want to do is to vote for a party that is in bed with the unions - Labour.
This is not the 1950s.
The era of cloth-cap unionism is finished.
For the Nats, MUNZ is the gift that keeps on giving.