Overcapitalised: In the anarchic context of free market capitalism, businesses like the Ports of Auckland Ltd attempt to steal a march on their competitors by investing in plant and machienery they can, ultimately, only afford by downgrading the pay and conditions of their workforce. A real union will prevent them - but only at the cost of sparking a major confrontation.
THE MACHINERY of a modern port dwarfs the men who work it. Vast sums of capital are bound up in each gantry crane and reach stacker, requiring their human operators to move the waiting cargo with speed and efficiency. These are solid, reliable men: worth every cent of their generous wage package.
The 300 waterside workers employed by the Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL) know exactly what they are worth, and with a tradition of unionisation extending back well over a century they know how to defend the wages and conditions the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) and its predecessors have won. They also know the dangers inherent in deunionisation; the risk that is posed to every worker when the work rhythms and safety measures enforced by the union’s collective contract are undermined by “self-employed” contractors.
It is in defence of their self-determined pace and rhythm of work and its critical importance to the health and safety of workers on and off the job that the members of MUNZ employed by POAL have struck. The bitter experience of other workers across New Zealand has taught them that the moment the union’s central role in determining the working conditions of its members is surrendered, then it ceases to be a union. It may still collect dues and celebrate May Day, but by facilitating the full restoration of managerial prerogatives on the “shop floor” it has become the employer’s creature – not the workers’.
The unimpeded exercise of managerial prerogative is what lies at the heart of all great industrial disputes. “Flexibility” is the watchword – meaning the ability of the employer to call workers in and send them home, as required, without incurring penalty rates of pay. “Flexibility” empowers the employer to hire and fire at will; to raise or lower employees’ wages according to the dictates of the market and without reference to the actual living expenses of individual workers and their families. “Flexibility” imposes on every worker an inescapable obligation to “give”, while conferring upon every employer an unchallengeable right to “take”.
That’s why every union that takes root in a business enterprise and wins the recognition of its owners is, in its own small way, a revolution. At stake is the fate of that business’s profits: the proportion allotted to the shareholders, and the proportion returned to the workforce in the form of higher wages and/or improved conditions. It’s class war at its most basic, its most dynamic, level. The unavoidable by-product of, to quote Leonard Cohen’s magnificent song Democracy: “the homicidal bitchin’/ that goes down in every kitchen/ to determine who will serve and who will eat.”
And when all of those tiny revolutions are joined together the result can very easily add up to a big revolution. Data gathered by the UK’s Office of National Statistics reveals in the starkest terms how Britain’s Top 1 Percent’s share of total income declined as trade union membership rose. When expressed graphically, one almost becomes the mirror-image of the other. In 1978, when the wealthiest Britons’ share of total income reached its nadir, the number of Britons belonging to a trade union attained its peak. Significantly, Mrs Thatcher’s neo-liberal counter-revolution set about reversing the process less than a year later. Five years on, New Zealand’s data undoubtedly reveals a very similar story.
The whirlwind of abuse unleashed against MUNZ’s Port of Auckland members reveals how acutely sensitive the employing class still is to even the slightest stirrings of union power. The employers understand perfectly what is at stake and are furious at MUNZ for flexing its muscles so publicly.
Winning concessions in private is one thing, but by making the benefits of solidarity so obvious, and demonstrating the limits of managerial prerogative – at least on Auckland’s publicly-owned waterfront – MUNZ has crossed a line. A victory for the union at this point in the dispute could only be interpreted as a victory for all unionised workers.
And that’s how revolutions begin.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 January 2012.