Saturday 31 March 2012

MUNZ - Won: POAL - Nil

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.


Anonymous said...

Well said, Mr Trotter. Why is this post "exclusive to Bowalley Road"? It should be printed by the papers that take your column And by the way, I think your mana gained lustre from your March 7 column. "STEADY, COMRADES, STEADY. This is the worst they have. This is all they’ve got left. After this, they have nothing. So, hold steady, comrades, hold steady."

Again, well said

Anonymous said...

Stand up, each and every one of you fine five thousand who entered the city on the donkey's back: for yours is the victory, yours is the hour, yours is the kingdom.

And tremble, scabs; and we who for whom the cock had crowed thrice: for ours is the deserved vault, the gnashing of teeth.

No it's not over yet. Stand firm and gird loins: 90,000 leaflets have but bruised the high priests. Expect massive media retribution and respond instantly with irresistable vim.


Anonymous said...

Just Saying:

The "strategy" of including wharfies families in publicity countering the POAL spin during this dispute is hardly 'rocket surgery'. Couldn't have been more obvious really.

Maybe this demonstrates that the union movement, and the left generally needs to embrace equal input from 51 percent of the community, and that a robust women's movement, far from being an impediment to the progression of the left, is an essential component of it.

I wasn't surprised to see that NZ's biggest feminist blog, 'The Hand Mirror' strongly supported MUNZ, and that every feminist I know in Auckland attended the march.

Daphna said...

Chris, I think the stuff you have written on this dispute has helped to generate public sympathy, but I don't really buy the argument that public opinion stopped the government backing the POAL. The trouble is it’s pure speculation that the government was hovering in the background getting ready to step in.

In fact, the public sentiment has been more sympathy than support; the sort of response people have when watching a starving child in Africa and then flick channels. Unless the public were willing to mobilise it is doubtful the sympathy played much of a role. Contrast that to the Government backdown on mining when 20,000 people took to the streets. To be decisive the public would need to engage along the lines you suggested a few weeks back, by forming community pickets.

I think the old fashioned union action - namely striking, holding up ships and giving to strike funds to enable the strikers to hold steady is what has been decisive so far. That's what's caused the exporters and importers to jump up and down, not postcards and slick PR.

Tiger Mountain said...

Well done to all Wharfies supporters mentioned. Lets hope the linking up of struggles and lockouts continues-sharing the donation numbers, visiting other sites etc. Back in the 80s in South Auckland a number of the bigger sites had virtually permanent $5 per head per week collections levied on union members to support other workers in the area.

It is surely time too for a consumer TalleyBAN and more attention to be put on AFFCO lockouts imposed by the dirtiest filithiest employer militants in food processing if not the country.

Interesting to see how truly degenerate Rob Campbell has become. I always thought him to be a supreme egotist and just toying with his trade union involvelment as long as he could sit at some top table with Ken Douglas, the Distribution Workers Fed or whatever.

The other phenomenon of the ‘5000 march’ was the on the ground co-operation between Māori and pākehā groups since the advent of Te Mana. As you point out international solidarity action was not a major consideration for POAL. Heh.

guerilla surgeon said...

Funny, Tiger Mountain, that's exactly the same impression I got of Campbell - after I saw him test driving flash cars 30 odd years ago.

Anonymous said...

Lol at people who think you need to be a woman to understand that families are a PR strategy for disputes or that this is some sort of novel tactic or that it was primarily co-ordinated in the MUNZ dispute by women. lol lol lol

Anonymous said...

I was one of the 5000 marching that day. I have no union affiliation nor have I been actively part of any political party. Although I work in a highly paid professional position in the middle of the CBD, my family come from humble Samoan beginnings. But I wanted to march, not only with the other 5000 people, but also with my wife and 6 month old daughter. Perhaps I was persuaded by the very images Helen Kelly dispersed through the PR campaign... but for me, it has always been about working families. The wharfies are working families, the same faces I see in my own family history. Well done to MUNZ! (BTW the Sunday programme had an interesting piece on the dispute last night)

Unknown said...

Good stuff Chris.

Carol Beaumont and Helen Kelly deserve considerable praise. They converted the dispute from a union v employer stoush to a union + worker + their family + their community v hard nosed Rodney Hide appointed employer stoush.

They have done well. From now on all union activity must be accompanied by community activity. All good progressives need to step up and support them. Our community depends on this ...

Frank said...

"Chris, I think the stuff you have written on this dispute has helped to generate public sympathy, but I don't really buy the argument that public opinion stopped the government backing the POAL. The trouble is it’s pure speculation that the government was hovering in the background getting ready to step in. "

Oh, I think it really focused the government's attention. They are so incredibly poll-focused that I doubt they blow their noses without first consulting the Great Focus Groups Oracle.

And truth to tell - what could Key - the "Real Kiwi Blokey Poli" do, without that carefully crafted image of him melting away, to reveal -? An alien lizard creature (ie, a Right Winger) bound on an evil mission to enslave humanity.

Key's teflon coating has been scrapped away, as evidenced by his poor performance on Q+A, yesterday. He doesn't need a wholesale street rebellion to destroy his government entirely.

But the thing that I found really interesting - and I hope Chris passes this along to the CTU - is that the Trade Union is moving with the times. Using PR campaigns may appear to be propaganda, but perhaps we need to fight fire with fire. The Right has used propaganda to sickening good effect - it's time the Left got with the 21st Century and used all the modern tools and techniques available to fight the good fight.

The impression I am picking up, as a social subtext, is that the New Right is waning. Judging by the hysterical anger on some of the more feral right wing blogsites - they can feel the change in the air as well.

The times, they are a changin'...

Anonymous said...

One of Sun Tzu maxims; “give your enemy a golden bridge and they will use it” – don’t write off the POAL yet. Before you get too smug Chris the low productivity of the ports working only 26 hours a week is costing Auckland rate payers 8 million a year, when a new agreement is reached it will be vastly different much in favour of the POAL.

Anonymous said...

A victory for MUNZ is off the back thousands of other workers on the minimum wage, while an elitist 300 prevail. Whoops, I forgot some socialists are more equal than others – George Orwell got it right.