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Union biting the hand that feeds

Union biting the hand that feeds

by Jami-Lee Ross


The latest development in the protracted Ports of Auckland industrial dispute must give all parties to the issue pause for thought. Continued industrial action would adversely affect the Port even further and could undermine the Maritime Union's very reason for being.

The announcement by Fonterra recently that it is moving the company's business from Auckland to Tauranga and Napier was a blow for the Queen City. While the negotiations between the Maritime Union and Ports of Auckland management may be a distant and removed matter for the average Aucklander, they must know the issue is now one of a fight for their port's survival.

Every Aucklander has a stake in the Ports of Auckland. It is not a privately owned company. Nor is it listed on any stock exchange. Each and every share in the company is owned by the Auckland Council on behalf of 1.4 million Auckland residents and ratepayers. The destruction in value in one of our city's largest public assets is alarming and has to be of concern to us all.

I don't use the term “destruction in value” lightly. It is a strong term, but one that is appropriate for this issue. Just as losing the business of Maersk in December was no laughing matter, losing Fonterra can not be ignored. At a reported weekly trade value of $27million, annualised the loss of Fonterra's custom represents around $1.4 billion of export business.

But numbers aside, it is obvious that losing the trade of New Zealand's largest company, only a month after losing the business of one of the worlds largest shipping lines, has to be a wakeup call. Yet sadly for the Maritime Union, it isn't. Sadly for port workers and Aucklanders alike, the Maritime Union continues to be unphased.

This isn't a story of a greedy corporate hammering the little guy. This isn't a story of a David versus Goliath battle where workers are being ripped off or paid a pittance. Few could call poverty on an average annual wage for a wharfie understood to be north of $90,000, with a proposed 10 percent hourly rate increase and performance bonuses of up to 20 percent, sitting on the table. To the average person on the street, the latest Ports of Auckland offer to the Union would almost seem generous.

This is in fact a story of the Maritime Union biting the hand that feeds them. It is a story of industrial action that, if left to go on much longer, could have disastrous consequences for the Ports of Auckland.

For commercial users, it is a simple matter of certainty and continuity Union action, and the threat of further strikes, have put a serious dent in the Ports of Auckland's ability to provide their bread and butter services Customers are now voting with their feet. The value of Ports of Auckland and the value of the investment that every Aucklander has in the company will continue to suffer if resolution to this matter is not swift.

Aucklanders can rightly be concerned at the increasingly rogue nature of the Maritime Union. However there are 500 men and women that work at the Port with even more skin in the game and a lot more to lose. The trade union movement evolved through a desire for workers to band together to protect their common interests. This is not a dishonourable goal. But when a union loses sight of its members long term interests and cavalier negotiating tactics start to backfire, the union itself begins putting its own member’s livelihoods at risk.

Unions still occupy a privileged position in New Zealand's employment law; a relic of the last Labour administration which has not seen significant overhaul for some years. Few non-government organisations can boast clauses in legislation specifically designed for their benefit. Despite only 18 percent of the nation's workforce being unionised, trade unions can look to whole sections of the Employment Relations Act written exclusively to aid union survival through legislative advantage.

Up until recently, cool heads and rational people sitting around negotiating tables have meant that little focus has been placed on the role that unions play in society. However, with the bare-faced mockery that the Maritime Union is making of civilised negotiations New Zealanders will soon begin to question what position unions should hold in the modern Kiwi workplace.

As the fight for Auckland's waterfront reaches the tipping point, for ratepayers and workers alike this present stand off must come to an end. The city's $600 million port investment and worker's jobs are now on the line. Also on the line is the country's acceptance of the role of trade unions. It can not be tolerable or acceptable for a union to demonstrate continued disregard for the economic consequences of their actions.

*Jami-Lee Ross is the Member of Parliament for Botany. He was formerly a member of the Auckland and Manukau City Councils.

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