Backgrounder: Meat Workers Union vows to survive Affco stoush in face of legal bills, dwindling membership
By Jonathan Underhill
Sept. 7 (BusinessDesk) - The Meat Workers Union says it will survive the prolonged dispute with Affco New Zealand, which has resisted renewing an expired collective contract, despite the legal costs and the inroads the company has made in signing workers to individual contracts.
The union describes the stoush as a battle between "one of the most powerful families and companies in New Zealand" with "great wealth and means" and workers who, individually, are "weak, without bargaining power". Graham Cooke, a former Affco mutton slaughterman and now the union's national secretary, says Affco, and its 100 percent owner since 2010, Talley's Group, have been trying to gauge the union's financial strength, "so they could tell how long it would take to break us."
The union is taking three principal cases - one on the right of access to Talley's-owned plants - which has been confirmed by the Employment Relations Authority, but which the union says still isn't resolved. It also has an Employment Court hearing set for early October claiming breach of good faith bargaining provisions by Affco in employing seasonal workers on "non-negotiated" individual contracts, and a second Employment Court hearing tentatively set for November claiming Affco walked away from negotiations on the collective contract that expired in 2013.
A two-day strike planned for Affco's eight plants last month was called off after intervention from iwi leaders Ken Mair and Tuku Morgan. The bitter and costly three-month Affco lockout in 2012 was resolved only after the Iwi Leaders Forum became involved out of concern for the workers, many of whom are Maori.
Although meatworkers have returned to work at Affco's Rangiuru, Imlay and Manawatu sites, 250 union members at the Wairoa plant have refused to sign new contracts as a precondition of returning to work, the union said today.
The union claims its members have been disadvantaged in the past four years over what Affco offers, with the company using a carrot and stick strategy to get workers onto individual contracts.
They include, says Cooke, taking workers individually into the plant manager's office at the start of the season, where they are offered a 3 percent pay rise, an attendance bonus of $1,000, longer seasons than those on collective contract, and day shifts rather than night shifts. Union members are more likely to get no start date, or a 90-day trial, and "shitty night shift jobs" if they are called up, he says.
Affco, New Zealand's fourth-biggest meat company, says "the vast majority" of its workers are now on individual contracts.
Affco director of operations Rowan Ogg, says the company is agnostic as to whether workers are on individual or collective agreements but in the face of declining stock numbers and over-capacity, the company needs to negotiate new contracts that reflect the competitive industry.
Ogg bats away suggestions Affco is a heartless company that doesn't value its workers.
"You will find that Affco employees have probably had longer seasons this year than many of those in non-Affco plants," Ogg says. "In terms of conditions, they're at least the equal of other plants. The majority of Affco's workers are happy with the situation. The union obviously is not happy."
Membership of the Meat Workers & Related Trades Union fell to 13,602 as at March 2014, from 18,100 in 2011, according to Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment data, although Cooke says based on fees paid, membership has been relatively steady.
Affco and the union each blame the other for lack of progress on a new collective contract, with the company becoming the first under new employment law introduced in March this year, to apply for an end to bargaining.
The union says during negotiations, Affco and its subsidiaries have bullied workers to sign individual contracts with inferior conditions in breach of labour law.
Victoria University employment law specialist Gordon Anderson says "procrastination and prevarication would grind the union down".
"The trick is to get union 'density' below a level where they can't do anything," Anderson says. "Below that level of density they don't have problems. They can carry on with production."
The accounts of NZ Meat Workers & Related Trades Union Inc show member subscriptions rose 2.5 percent to $2.8 million in the year ended Sept. 30, 2014. Total income of $3.1 million scraped above expenses of $3.04 million, resulting in a $60,950 net surplus. Legal costs rose to $310,345 from $217,730.
Asked whether meat workers have sought other union support to bankroll litigation, Cooke says his members haven't.
"Meat Workers is big enough and ugly enough to look after itself," he says.
The Meat Workers Union hasn't succeeded in directly implicating the Talley family, known for its hostility to unions in general, in the claimed labour law breaches at Affco plants, including thwarting the attempts of union delegates to meet workers on site.
In a related case, involving Affco subsidiary South Pacific Meats, Talley's joint managing director Michael Talley was named as second defendant and the union contended factory managers told its delegates Talley didn't want union "interference" and didn't agree with Employment Relations Authority determinations. Those managers gave affidavits denying the conversations took place.
The company's lawyers subsequently argued on the grounds of privilege against providing a copy of communications between Talley and Affco which might have substantiated the contention that Michael Talley had "incited, instigated, aided or abetted" the company's alleged breaches of labour law.
The union has, though, succeeded in filing an expanded statement of claim for its pending Employment Court suit, set down for hearing on Oct. 5-7 in Auckland, against Affco which it says bullied workers into signing individual contracts in defiance of their rights to a collective agreement.
In June the union failed to secure an urgent injunction to stop Affco offering individual contracts to its members for the new season at the Rangiuru plant because a new collective contract hadn't been settled. However, later that month the union filed an amended statement of claim, expanding on the theme that Affco's behaviour amounted to an unlawful lockout.
In early August the union put up a second amended statement of claim, saying the same issues had arisen at Affco's Imlay and Feilding plants, and alleging it was part of a wider pattern of unlawful behaviour by Affco to undermine collective bargaining and the union, while engaging in unlawful individual bargaining. .
In an Aug. 17 interlocutory judgment, Employment Court Chief Judge Graeme Colgan said that taking a broad view of the dispute, "collective bargaining between the union and the defendant and its associated subsidiary companies has been very problematic and is perhaps stalled."
Even though the second amended statement of claim from the union was outside of the timetable for such changes and was opposed by Affco, Judge Colgan accepted it, saying the court's overall objective was to help the parties determine how Affco's plants and its employment of meatworkers in them "can operate lawfully, safely, productively, and in good faith for the mutual benefit of employer and employees."