Naive: Auckland Mayor, Len Brown, must surely have understood that his action in demanding a doubling of the Port of Auckland's return on capital would produce an equal and opposite reaction from the Maritime Unions. Those behind the current employer onslaught should be under no illusion that if they go on pushing workers - workers will push back.
THE AFFCO CEO, Hamish Simpson, said it all: “It’s a fundamental test of the right to manage.”
What we see unfolding in North Island freezing works and on the Auckland wharves is a naked bid for unbridled employer power. The Ports of Auckland and AFFCO have made it clear, they will settle for nothing less than the full restoration of managerial prerogatives. They’re demanding the “right to manage” without let or hindrance; and that goal can only be achieved by the complete emasculation – or outright destruction – of their on-site unions.
AFFCO’s use of the lockout is the most brutal manifestation, to date, of the current employer onslaught. The contempt it displays for the company’s workers and their families is breath-taking. These are seasonal labourers, many of whom rely upon the money earned over a few months to carry themselves and their families through the rest of the year. Smoothed-out over twelve months, their pay is not spectacular. By denying its employees a weekly pay-check, AFFCO is openly declaring its intention to drive these families into poverty and starve them into submission.
It’s class war – pure and simple. It will not, however, be presented as such. Just switch on any radio and you will hear the soft, soapy sound of middle-class journalists washing their hands of all responsibility for calling these events by their true name. To hear them talk, the AFFCO bosses are only trying to advance their shareholders’ interests.
According to the bourgeois journalist’s view of economic relationships, your job doesn’t really belong to you, it belongs to the boss – and it is what he says it is. If you don’t like it – quit. Put simply, workers don’t own their jobs: either individually or collectively. The claim that workers – through their unions – are striking “in defence” of their jobs cuts little ice with this sort of journalist. How can somebody “defend” something that was never theirs?
What the bourgeois journalist cannot deny, however, is that workers still own their own labour. Brain and muscle power are still up for sale, and the boss is buying. Naturally, he’s anxious to purchase workers’ labour power on terms most favourable to himself. This he achieves by requiring workers to bargain with him one at a time. That way he can tell individual job-seekers to either take it, or leave it.
Collective bargaining, by contrast, sets out to establish a common price for a specific kind of labour. When successful it gives workers a significant measure of control over the jobs their bosses need them to do. Through collective bargaining they can determine both the job’s price and the conditions under which it is performed. By forming a union they give themselves the power to grab a share of the business’s profits that would otherwise be distributed among the shareholders, and distribute it among themselves.
Small wonder, then, that capitalists hate unions. By lifting workers’ wages above bare subsistence level (as the Maritime Unions have done on the Auckland wharves) the trade union reduces the size of the shareholders’ dividend. And since maximising the return to shareholders is the prime function of every business, it is hardly surprising that keeping unions out of the workplace ranks high on most boss’s list of priorities.
And if the shareholders have instructed the boss to double the business’s return on capital? What then? If we’re talking about a unionised business, then the boss’s most obvious course of action is surely to drive the union out. This is is exactly what POAL Boss, Tony Gibson, is attempting to do. The Auckland City Council (led by the allegedly left-leaning, Len Brown) has demanded that POAL double its rate of return on capital from 6 to 12 percent. If not in the wage-packets of its workers, where does Mayor Brown suggest POAL go looking for such an impossibly high rate of return? In demanding 12 percent, the City Council has effectively mandated the deunionisation of Auckland’s wharves.
Left-wing voters would do well to remember this next year when the so-called “Independent”, Len Brown, asks them for a second term. Or, perhaps they'll decide to run their own candidate in 2013? Maybe the wharfie’s son, Mike Lee?
It would serve Len Brown right for being so naïve. For seriously believing that the action of attacking the Maritime Unions would not generate an equal and opposite reaction.
Because Newton’s Law doesn’t just apply to physics, it applies to politics as well. Working people have never willingly submitted to wage slavery and there is no reason to believe that this generation is one whit more inclined than its predecessors to let employers drive down their incomes to subsistence levels.
Let the bosses and their parties take heed. If their temporary possession of the Treasury benches encourages them to re-draw the law to their own advantage, then what is to stop a party dedicated to the workers’ interest from doing the same? Push working people too hard and they will push back. Rewrite the employment laws for the purposes of restoring an uncontested “right to manage”, and a time will come when those same laws will be rewritten to restore the workers’ right to union protection.
Indeed, the more generously this government empowers the employers; the more openly it incites its friends to take-on the unions; the easier it will be for the next government to introduce legislation providing for universal union membership, compulsory arbitration and national awards.
An employment relations regime based on those three institutions remained intact from 1937 until 1991 – more than fifty years. How long the next regime lasts is entirely in the bosses’ hands. An equal and opposite reaction to the sort of things they’re doing now will give working people the upper hand for a very long time indeed.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.