Tuesday 10 January 2012

The Auckland Ports Dispute: Pace Setters

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.


Anonymous said...

How wonderful to read a piece that supports union activity and union commitment to protecting the conditions of its members. How come such a stance is so rare in columns and blogs? I fear what is happening in Auckland is just the prologue to a sustained second term government's attack on workers' rights to have a collective agreement.

Mark Wilson said...

Give us a break - $90k for 26 hours work and that work at a totally uncompetitive pace - the Union went looking for a fight that has cost the Port a number of it's major customers.
Far too many [people remmeber the corrupt and venal actions of the Unions to not want the wharfies smashed.
The left and the union were the only people in the country who were too dumb to realize they were going to get made redundant (sacked).
Morons all!

thor42 said...

I very much doubt that the union will be winning a victory of any sort in this dispute.

What they are actually doing is hastening their own demise.
Here is an article on the world's first automated straddle-carriers (at the port of Brisbane).

That is undoubtedly the way of the future for all ports.
Computers don't ask for overtime. They don't go on strike.

Sure, setting this up would cost a few million, but it would pay for itself within a very short time, I'd imagine.

Welcome to the future, MUNZ.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it will be a great future when we have 90% of the population without jobs.

If we used technology to reduce the working week and increase the living standards of the majority it would be absolutely great.

Of course what will happen is the sociopathic right wing will insist that the benefits accrue to the shrinking majority of already wealthy while everyone else is slowly jettisoned into high tech poverty. Great!

Chris Trotter said...

That's right Mark, you just get it all out of your system.

All that unhinged middle-class viciousness; all that evidence-bereft ranting; all that narcissistic terror at having, for just a single moment, to consider the needs of the other seven billion human-beings with whom you are forced to share this planet.

You just pour it all out, Mark. Don't spare us a single drop. Because there's a certain forensic beauty in the spectacle of a diseased and stinking bourgeois intellect disgorging itself.

You go for it.

Anonymous said...

The union officials from MUNZ give such a convincing display of being ignorant left wing warriors forever fighting a class war that actually ended long ago. I'm sure that they are not REALLY like that at all but rational thinking human beings who care about the wilder population.....yeah right!!

Brendan McNeill said...


The nice thing about a 'closed shop' is that it locks out competing labour, people who might for example, be happy to work for $60K per annum instead of the $90K+ I understand these workers currently earn.

In the end, the Auckland Port Company has to compete with other Port companies who are presently taking their business. No doubt this is the driver behind the desire to introduce a level of cost reduction and flexibility, otherwise why buy the fight?

The irony is that a more flexible approach would actually save jobs, rather than see people made redundant, which seems inevitable now.

No one likes to see their wages or conditions reduced. I accept that. However, there is an over supply of unskilled and semi-skilled labour in the world, and if you are in that camp, the realty is your standard of living is going to fall.

At the end of the day, the consumer pays for inflated costs in the supply chain. Why should someone on the minimum wage be subsidizing the wages of Auckland wharfies when they purchase their shoes from the Warehouse?

At $90K plus per annum it's difficult to work up much righteous indignation for their cause, although I grant you have made an attempt to do so.

Anonymous said...

Terrific Chris,

Well crucially Labour member Len Brown cannot let Gibson screw the workers.

If,under his watch such anti-worker skullduggery is allowed to triumph, then Brown will have to resign!

Anonymous said...

Chris, that comment about Mark's rant is superbly articulate. His bile is going to be repeated countless times over the next three years. Your word skills are going to be an important deployment in that time period if workers in this country are going to be able to withstand the inevitable attacks on their conditions.

Gerrit said...

The obvious solution is for the union to organise a bid for the stevodoring contracts about to be tendered by the PoA.

They have the inside running with a skilled workforce.

That way the monitary gains made by efficiency improvements, made by the union contractors, will flow back to the members.

As will recruitment and training so a safer and highly motivated workforce.

Then the union can expand by bidding on stevodoring contracts in Tauranga, Napier, Timaru, Wellington, Lyttleton, Melbourne, Sydney, etc., etc.

But that is the American union system and probably not in the interest of the cloth cap brigade.

alwyn said...

I fear that you have chosen a very appropriate photograph for what the future holds for POA. All one can see is empty wharves with not a ship in sight. The work will all have gone to Tauranga or Napier. What will the POA labour force be doing then?

Chris Trotter said...

Look again, Alwyn. I think you'll see a vessel alongside the dock waiting to be loaded.

And, according to POAL's own annual report, it will be loaded 4.1 percent more efficiently than would have been the case just a year before.

And that improvement took place on a waterfront with much less room to manoeuvre the complex machinery required for container handling than is the case with the much more spacious Port of Tauranga.

Perhaps that's why the POAL CEO, Tony Gibson, rewarded his staff with productivity bonuses just weeks before this dispute blew up?

One of those things that make you go ... hmmmm?

guerilla surgeon said...

1.And we have a so called left wing Mayor telling the union to be more flexible :-).

2.And sorry, $90,000 pa for 26 hrs work is pure propaganda.

3.Funny how the class war is only over when the middle class think they've won.

4.'No-one likes to see their OWN wages and coditions reduced' - but bosses will happily reduce everyone else's.

5.The POA bosses seem to have no empathy. People, especially those with families deserve a bit of certainty in their jobs. I notice that while he expects his workers to sit by the phone ready to be called for work the POA bloke refused to cut short HIS holiday to talk to the Union :-).

Jeremy Bowen said...

Oh for a perfect world. Reasonable employers and reasonable unions. Neither is always perfect. However, a system that allows both a chance to be so is the system that we need to have. Does that exist now Chris in your opinion?

cousinbrown said...

Matt McCarten's column in the most recent Herald on Sunday covers this issue in depth. He reveals it as a stage-managed conflict that seems designed to create public acceptance of privatization of POAL. POAL currently returns $18m per annum to the public coffers. Not bad in these straitened times.

Cries of "more efficiency" are designed get us all blaming those awful unionists. Hmm...

Anonymous said...

"At the end of the day, the consumer pays for inflated costs in the supply chain. Why should someone on the minimum wage be subsidizing the wages of Auckland wharfies when they purchase their shoes from the Warehouse?"

Nonsense. What is happening here is essentially an attempt by the employer to make people do work for nothing, and thus for consumers to get something cheaper by not paying the full cost.

It's not often put that way, but for wage workers "flexibility" means being on call, and not being paid for it.

Employers pay for time on the job, but people on call are neither on the job nor off it, but in an odd sort of limbo between both states. This is because even though they aren't at work, their time is not wholly their own, since they can't make plans that would be jeopardised by being called in to work. This is a restriction on their freedom of action for the sole benefit of the employer, and so the employer should pay for it.

The easiest solution is to pay people a salary rather than an hourly wage, with the expectation that they are on call at certain times. Thus, a surgeon who is on call has been paid for it, and has the obligation to turn up.

Wage workers who are on call are not paid for the restrictions on their free time. Employers should be required to pay a retainer to wage workers on call for as long as they are on call as proper compensation.

But wait, this looks rather like the union's current contract... funny that.

No one should have restrictions placed on their free time by their employer for nothing.

Anonymous said...

There has been a number of graphs shown depicting profitability, real wages etc but there is one set of statistics not displayed that I have seen. That of accident rates as productivity has increased. According to my sources it has increased. The Port demands safety and then squeals like a pig about the cost when the solutions are outlined and then demands cuts in other areas. So either the stevedoring or the management [or more likely both of them] need to change. That isn't going to happen while both factions rally round the flag of the 1951 strike. Frontera and Maersk were going to leave anyway for other reasons.. What they will leave in their wake is two antidiluvian opponents intent on doing each other in.

And they probably will.


Charles Pigden said...

Wow Chris that graph is really sensational! It certainly seems to show something of which I would have otherwise been skeptical - that trade union action can change the respective SHARES of the social product that accrue to the various classes.

With respect to some other commentators: There is an absurd, but widespread, superstition that conspiracy theories AS SUCH are irrational or unbelievable, an idea that is very useful if you happen to be a conducting a conspiracy. For people are less likely to investigate conspiracies if they think it is silly to believe in them. In the same kind of way, the idea that there is is no such thing as class struggle in the modern age is very useful if you happen to be a class warrior - at least it is a useful thesis to put about if you are fighting on behalf of the possessing classes. For your victims are less likely to fight back if they don't believe that somebody is out to get them. Of course, the fact that the no-class-struggle thesis is a useful belief for aspiring class warriors does not mean that everyone who puts it about is doing for that reason. Useful idiots are all the more useful if they sincerely believe their own idiocies.

Sanctuary said...

I worked for a company once that was incompetently managed. The ECA was a God-send for the boss of that business. Instead of planning or predicting or trying to manage workloads, the boss realised he could just hire casuals on six months short term contracts and see how it went.

What people don't realise is that management by totalitarianism, which is what NZ Managers increasingly demand, eventually leads to a certain kind of angry laziness, a cessation of thinking and planning in favour of repression (because the boss is no longer used to or interested in hearing the truth, only the toadying of sycophants) and reactionism. Online authoritarians supporting the divine rights of management are doing the country no favours, because like tinpot dictators everywhere our managers will eventually grow addicted to the superficially attractive short-cuts of brutalism and diktat.

Supporting Tony Gibson and the ROAL management isn't supporting smarter management, it is supporting lazy and stupid management.