New Zealand dock workers can win but not without a fight

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Events continue to unfold at a dizzying speed in the industrial dispute at Ports of Auckland Limited (POAL). On Friday afternoon CEO Tony Gibson was insisting that the company’s plan to contract out its workforce “remains our bottom line.” This is despite a series of legal and political setbacks to the plan over the past few weeks. On Tuesday 27 March, the Employment Court ruled that the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) had a “seriously arguable case” that Ports of Auckland had broken the law during its negotiations with MUNZ. Then, last Friday, the Employment Court ruled that the company would have to put its contracting out plans on hold until the middle of May. In the meantime, it has been ordered to resume negotiations with MUNZ and forced to abandon its latest lockout of the Auckland wharfies, scheduled to start on 6 April.

Since late last year, the port has aggressively pursued a strategy to contract out all wharf work, but, in typical underhanded fashion, refused to confirm it until last month. This plan would mean that all Auckland wharfies would lose their jobs and have to reapply to do the same work with private stevedoring companies. They would be employed under new ‘flexible’ agreements, in which shifts would be set at short notice by employers, leading to overwork on some weeks and underemployment on others. This is the situation at the Port of Tauranga, where stevedoring work is contracted out — and where there have been three fatal accidents in fifteen months! Working under different employment agreements makes it harder for workers to unite together to defend wages and conditions and to join an industrial union such as MUNZ.

Faced with this assault on their basic rights and working conditions, the members of MUNZ Auckland Local 13 took the only rational route open to them: they began a series of continuous week long strikes beginning on 24 February. In the meantime, MUNZ leaders repeated their commitment to negotiate “productivity improvements” on the Auckland wharves. On 21 March, they announced that they were hopeful of an agreement and were ready to lift the strike. Ports of Auckland responded by announcing an indefinite lockout. The Employment Court has since ordered the company to cancel the lockout and to pay wharfies for the days lost.

MUNZ’s legal victories are significant, but only the power of collective, direct action by wharfies and other workers can win this fight. A round-the-clock protest picket on the Auckland waterfront has been visited and supported by workers from all types of industries and jobs. On 10 March, between two and four thousand people, many carrying union banners, marched along the waterfront in support of the wharfies — one of the largest labour movement demonstrations in years. A notable contingent was made up of meat workers, locked out by the Talley’s AFFCO company.

There have also been courageous direct actions to disrupt cargo movement through the ports. Wharfies and their supporters in Auckland—and other ports around the country — have undertaken ‘hard pickets’ or blockades of port gates. The direct action campaign has spread internationally, with Australian wharfies refusing to handle cargo loaded in Auckland by scab labour.

Direct actions such as these are largely illegal in New Zealand. This is especially so in the case of solidarity strikes by workers with different employers. The State has outlawed these actions precisely because they are effective: they hit capitalists’ bottom line. Auckland retailers are already complaining of shortages of imports, and exporters are also worried that their commodities will not reach overseas buyers.

Time after time, when workers across the globe have defied such laws they have won significant victories against employers and the State, including the right to organise unions in the first place. Solidarity strikes are necessary because they prevent work from being diverted from the disputed workplace to another location, and provide workers with strength and safety in numbers.

New Zealand capitalists are clearly becoming frustrated with the dispute, not because they disagree with contracting out and union busting, but because port management has bungled the job of breaking the union. Conservative media organisations are turning against CEO Tony Gibson and the six-member port’s Board of Directors. On Friday, one board member resigned.

The mainstream media is increasingly turning its attention towards the Auckland Council, as the Council owns POAL. Councilors and the Mayor are trying to avoid responsibility, arguing that an intermediate authority appoints the Board. We need to ignore this sleight of hand and demand that the Council dismiss POAL’s Board, and executive managers, including Tony Gibson. We must also demand that the Council oppose privatisation, and contracting-out, not only at the ports, but at all of the other enterprises and services it owns or operates.

A prominent demand of the MUNZ leadership is that that the Mayor or Council mediate between the union and Ports of Auckland. This is a serious mistake that will do nothing to aid the wharfies’ cause. In a capitalist society, local governments do not exist to look after all residents, but to look after all capitalists who do business in the city. The new Auckland Council was established two years ago to centralise power and to reduce the number of elected representatives to hasten privatisation. Any deal brokered by the Council would be a phony ‘compromise’ in which the employers get their way by offering a few token concessions to the wharfies. Unions need to strive to become more independent of the capitalist State, rather than seek to work according to its rules and procedures

We need to remain vigilant. April 2012 opens with some good news for Auckland’s wharfies, but the struggle against a ruthless and deceitful employer is far from over. Workers must maintain their direct support for the wharfies to win back their positions and conditions, and to hold back employers’ assaults in other industries. We must not, and cannot, rely on agencies of the State to protect us.

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