Sunday, 26 February 2012

We Support the Maritime Union: on the Ports of Auckland Dispute

The International Socialist Organisation supports the Maritime Union of New Zealand in its strike at Ports of Auckland.

About 300 Maritime Union members have started strike action this week, and the pitch of anti-union stories in the media is building to try and discredit their case. But MUNZ's struggle is important for all working people: it's a fight against casualisation and for job security.

You can make a $5 donation to support the struggle by calling 0900 OUR PORT (0900 687 7678). There is more information - including a petition to sign and details of pickets - at the campaign site Save Our Port.

We reprint below an analysis of the dispute from the latest Socialist Review, our magazine.


We support the Maritime Union: on the Ports of Auckland strikes.

by Josh O'Sullivan 

Strike action continues at the Ports of Auckland, after moves by the Board of the Ports of Auckland to axe jobs, outsource work to contractors and turn permanent staff into casual staff. These strikes, organised by the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) are the first on the docks in four years and the largest closure since the 1951 waterfront lockout. MUNZ members are fighting for conditions essential to healthy lives – regular hours and secure work – and their fight is one all workers in New Zealand have an interest in supporting.

Many similarities can be found between this an earlier waterfront struggles, even in the political tactics used by the government to use neoliberal policy to deregulate, privatise and cutback.

The aim of the outsourcing and casualisation is to drive a wedge between workers. Whether it is private contractors and a casual workforce or scabs undermining their union workmates, competition for jobs is the biggest enemy of the working class.

A Struggle against Casualisation

The existing collective agreement, which expired in September was designed to secure a certain percentage of permanent workers and to keep casual employments at 25% of workforce. At the basic pay rate of $27 an hour, a permanent stevedore works 260 8 hour shifts a year for $57,000. Overtime is common because the Port doesn’t want to employ enough permanents for its needs, and workers have to be available around the clock, on public holidays, and weekends. In theory, a stevedore could earn the mythic $90,000 that the Port talks about, but it would only be by working 64 hours a week, every week. Work on the wharf often involves unsocial hours, time away from family and friends, and difficult labour – the lies of the Port, repeated all too often in the media, are a side show. The wharfies fight is the fight of every worker who wants to resist casualisation.

Forget the myths. Far from being unskilled, easy work with plenty of breaks, port work is still dangerous. Three workers were killed at Tauranga, the so-called model port, last year. It is also highly skilled work, with many wharfies having multiple qualifications.

Ports of Auckland is actually highly profitable; last year the workers at the port increased productivity by 4.1%. So the current dispute is about management demanding the right to exploit them even more! The board members of the Ports of Auckland are are trying to drive the union from the port by removing the restrictions on the employment of casual workers, guaranteed shifts or hours, casualising the workforce and give workers no choice at all about any days off and reduce break times to minimum requirements. The port is offering a 10% wage hourly pay increase, but the offer is also to give contracts out to at least 3 private contractors, and, in this deal, no-one will receive an increase in pay due to the reduced hours. This is a blatant attack on the union in order to move it toward the "more efficient Tauranga model." And what are the workers asking for? To keep their current work rights and a 2.5% pay increase.

Tauranga: a model of ‘efficient’ divide-and-rule

The Port of Tauranga is privately owned. In around 1989 after a bitter prolonged industrial dispute, the Port was successful is dividing up its workforce into competing contractors. The Port itself own owns a stevedoring company, it employs some of its owns stevedores and it has four private companies also available to carry out the stevedoring work. The workers at the Port of Tauranga know that they are in competition with each other. Those prepared to take less pay, to cut corners, to be more “flexible” (that is, turn up as and when required with no guarantee of work) get the work. Two of the companies even formed their own unions to ensure MUNZ were kept out. Workers join the inhouse union rather than joining MUNZ or the RMTU, for fear of adverse employment consequences. This is a mirror of the 1951 waterfront lockout even down to the tactics used by business to force a wedge into the workforce. This all arises because each of the six main ports are in competition with each other and as there are only so many ships coming in the major companies that use the ships become price setters. They are able to force down the rate per container while the infrastructure is being subsidised by tax and rate payers, or competitive contracting.
The natural result of workers being divided in the workforce is lower wages, little security of employment and the high accident record. This result is praised in academic and industry journals: it is what the bosses mean when they talk about ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity.’

A Wider Bosses’ Offensive

Exports are essential for an island-based capitalism like New Zealand’s, and the smooth (and profitable) flow of commodities from the farm to the market is an obsession of our rulers. When Canterbury Meat Processing locked out its workers for 65 days to extort a 20% wage cut out of them, the media and the business ‘community’ didn't say a word in protest. These cuts to workers’ rights and pay in these sectors serve a purpose. The government is trying to increase the rates of profit for the export industry and in the current economic doctrine of Keynesianism for the rich and neoliberalism for the workers, the key sectors of major trade are targeted. This, combined with proposed massive expansion in dairy farming, make clear the National government’s economic plan.

Ports Of Auckland released a statement stating that strike action, planned for the 31st of January is "highly irresponsible" and says it strengthens their resolve to sack unionised workers. But MUNZ have indicated that they will not be intimidated, and more strike action is planned. If wharfies can win against plans for further casualisation, this could give confidence to workers in other industries – like fast foods – where casualisation and the roster system has weakened union strength.

MUNZ are standing up for their rights. It’s up to the rest of us to stand with them.

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