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Gordon Campbell on David Cunliffe’s comments on ports

Gordon Campbell on David Cunliffe’s comments on the ports of Auckland dispute, and on Iran

Labour’s Economic Development spokesperson David Cunliffe made a useful contribution to the ports of Auckland dispute this morning.

As Cunliffe says, the proposals that management are trying impose run the risk of losing experienced staff, and undermining the morale and the worksite cohesion that’s necessary for productivity gains to be sustained, long term. As Cunliffe also pointed out, health and safety standards in the workplace are easier to organise when the work force is less fragmented: “In the long term, complex organizations, particularly those who undertake dangerous and difficult work, as ports of Auckland does, need to have an empowered, an involved, a committed work force.”

This has never been much of a concern for our business lobbyists, who have been chronically inclined to chase short term labour cost savings at the expense of everything else. Such was the case with the Employment Contract Act reforms in the early 1990s, and nothing much seems to have changed in the corporate mindset. As much as anything, the fixation on chasing labour cost reduction ahead of all other ways of enhancing productivity goes a long way towards explaining the growing wage gap between New Zealand and Australia – which has chosen not to pursue our “penny wise, pound foolish” approach to labour relations to anything like the same extent.

By treating the ports dispute within this wider framework, Cunliffe may even entice Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce in off the fence. Is the prohibitively costly competition that has been going on between the various ports in New Zealand really in the country’s best interests? Especially when the outlays involved see ports management resort to socially damaging and divisive forms of labour management, in order to recoup the investments that they arguably should never have made in the first place? Or not at least, if a national plan for the optimal use of our ports actually existed.

Cunliffe was also right to bring up the health and safety aspects of casualisation. The port at Tauranga, which is the example being held up for Auckland to emulate, has a far worse health and safety record than the ports of Auckland. Casualisation, literally, costs lives. Mainly because an atomised workforce runs a greater risk of death and injury on the job.

Unfortunately, Auckland port workers are not being allowed to pursue other ways of building on the productivity gains they have made in the past four years – and which have already seen their output exceed that in comparable Australian ports. Cutting your labour costs to the bone is one way of proceeding, I guess. Yet as Cunliffe suggests, the result is likely to be far more damaging in the long run than finding intelligent ways of working with your employees, and not against them.

***

Military Strikes Against Iran

Reportedly, US President Barack Obama has given Iran until this time next year to dismantle its nuclear programme. Or else, apparently, it will face military action. Does this mean Iran has to remove every aspect of its capability to produce nuclear energy? Because everyone – even the US – concede that Iran is still years away from producing a nuclear weapon, even it wants to, which is debatable. The more interesting point this week is that recent polling shows the bulk of the US public do not support a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilitiesand neither do most Israelis, unless the military strike has US support.

The numbers are fairly staggering. Only 17% of Americans support a military strike and only 19% of Israelis support such a strike without US support. Some 60 % of Americans think that economic and diplomatic efforts should be pursued instead, and a further 22% favour no action at all. Over one third of Israelis do not support a military strike at all. Clearly, the hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv will have their work cut out to convince their respective publics that a military strike against Iran is essential.

Somehow, according to the hawks, a world that can live with Pakistan having a nuclear weapon and with Israel being nuclear-armed, simply can’t accept Iran also achieving atomic parity in say five years time – to a point where the West must, must, must go to war with Iran quite soon, in order to prevent that outcome. Not many people in the US or Israel are buying it. Nor should we.

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