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Unions fail to confront Govt over Air NZ plans

10 December 2005

Unions fail to confront Government over Air NZ plans

Rather than confront the Government over Air NZ plans to shut-down its heavy engineering aircraft repair operations, unions have turned to an anti-union accounting firm to come up with a cost-saving scheme at the expense of workers' conditions.

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) and the Aviation and Marine Engineers Association (AMEA) have put up a plan that would save only half of the 600 jobs that would be lost if the engineering work was outsourced off-shore.

Not only would more than 300 jobs disappear, the workers who remain would have to take a major wage cut and yet still be expected to do the same or more work.

Instead of making concessions, the Alliance says the unions should be waging a campaign to force the Government, which owns 82 per cent of Air NZ, to take full control of the airline and ensure the engineering repair facilities are kept open.

Alliance co-leader Len Richards says the unions have buckled under to the blackmail of the company, which is cynically using the threat of a complete closure of the repair workshops to extract "voluntary" concessions from the workers.

The unions have hired Michael Stiassny of the accountancy firm Ferrier Hodgson who has come up with a plan that will mean far-reaching changes in work conditions in the hope that enough money can be saved to convince the company to save 300 engineers' jobs.

The Alliance says Mr Stiassny is not known as a workers' champion. He specialises in company restructuring and insolvency. He chairs the Board of the lines company Vector and Auckland's corporatised water company, Metrowater. He also holds directorships in a number of other companies including Metlifecare, a major player in the aged care industry currently under attack in a corporate takeover bid by the Australian McQuarrie Bank.

He told the NZ Herald it was "phenomenal" and an "amazing surprise", to see "how far the [union] delegates and members have moved on labour reform". It is "unusual", he crowed, "to see a union make those ... deliverables" and Air NZ should take advantage of these concessions.

Andrew Little, the national secretary of the EPMU, described the accountants' plan as a viable alternative, but in selling workers' conditions in return for an unenforceable undertaking that some jobs will be saved, Mr Little and the unions are playing right into the company's hands, Mr Richards says.

The company that Mr Stiassny works for is known as a "corporate undertaker", having dealt with several high profile company receiverships. In one, a so-called "Phoenix" scheme in 1998, a stevedoring company went into receivership and then arose from its own ashes under a new name.

"This was done to cheat laid-off wharfies out of their holiday and redundancy pay," Mr Richards says. "The wharfies, through the liquidator, successfully sued Ferrier Gibson for nearly $2 million. To think such a company would act in the interests of Air NZ engineers, as Andrew Little obviously does is, at the very least, the height of naivety."

Only a few days before the presentation of the union concessions to Air NZ, the company said that even a 25 per cent cut in labour costs for the engineers would not be enough to save their jobs.

"In fact Air NZ said only across-the-board concessions from all 2100 engineering workers could see some of the heavy engineering jobs saved. Air NZ management said even changes in shift patterns, removal of penal rates and an 'hours bank' to manage the work load would not be cheaper than outsourcing," Mr Richards says.

The Alliance says the loss of our country's heavy aircraft repair capacity would be a major blow to our strategically important transport infrastructure. The Labour-led government should act in the interests of the people who elected it and protect the 600 jobs at risk while ensuring New Zealand continues to have a viable national airline.

"Privatisation of transport has been a disaster for New Zealand as has been seen in the fiascos dogging the railways and bus companies. An integrated, planned transport system is only possible through public ownership and democratic control," Mr Richards says.

The Alliance is calling on the unions to consider an Argentinean-style occupation of the workshops in both Auckland and Christchurch.

"Such an occupation would win wide community support. It's not only about the job losses. These workshops are assets owned by the people of New Zealand and should remain so."

ENDS

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